Russian Yandex lays off two dozen US-based workers from its robot and self-driving teams

Yandex, the multibillion-dollar Russian tech company that operates a small fleet of self-driving vehicles in Ann Arbor, Michigan, laid off more than two dozen US-based workers earlier this month, saying its vehicles had been suspended by Michigan state regulators, The edge has learned. But Michigan says that’s just not true.

In the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Yandex suspended AV testing in Ann Arbor, as well as testing with six-wheeled delivery robots at several college campuses in Ohio and North America. ‘Arizona. But the break was only meant to be temporary – the company said it hopes to resume those operations at a later date.

Yandex says it was notified on March 9 that its vehicle licenses had been suspended by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). Six Ann Arbor-based security drivers have been terminated, the company confirmed. (Yandex employed about 15 people in the city, according to a former employee.) In addition, Yandex also laid off 21 workers in Arizona and Ohio who acted as field support staff for the company’s delivery robots. company.

The state, however, says it is not true that Yandex’s licenses were suspended. Yandex still has 14 valid manufacturer’s plates registered with the state, said Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for Michigan’s secretary of state. “We haven’t received any cancellation requests,” she said. As for the MDOT, it did have a contract with Yandex to operate a self-driving transportation service during the 2021 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, but that contract was terminated on July 1 due to the pandemic.

“MDOT had nothing to do with Yandex anymore,” Cranson said.

The company operated a robot delivery pilot at several universities in Arizona and Ohio, with plans to expand to hundreds more.

But that’s not what Yandex told its employees – or The edge. Yandex, which has been dubbed “the Google of Russia,” insists the state pressured it to shut down its self-driving vehicle testing operations in Ann Arbor. “In early March 2022, the company’s legal counsel had a discussion with MDOT and was asked to suspend its on-road operations,” Yandex spokeswoman Yulia Shveyko said in an email. “On March 9, we were informed by [the] Michigan Department of Transportation that our trial license has been suspended. Road testing without a license is not possible, so we had to fire 6 security drivers in Ann Arbor.

When asked to respond to information provided by MDOT and the Secretary of State, Shevyko refused. “I have shared with you all the details of our side available at the moment,” she said.

An employee said he was made aware that Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer received complaints about a Russian company collecting traffic data on public roads and ordered the suspension of Yandex’s licenses. (A spokesperson for the governor deferred comments to MDOT.)

“We were caught off guard,” the former Yandex employee said. “And we were told it was the governor of Michigan that we had to go out of business for.”

Yandex has wanted to do business in the United States for more than a decade. In 2009, the company opened Yandex Labs in Palo Alto, a 10-minute drive from Google headquarters. The company has sought to hire nearly two dozen engineers who could share the latest Silicon Valley trends with Moscow, according to Wired.

That interest widened to include self-driving vehicles after Yandex’s ride-sharing division, Yandex Taxi, acquired all of Uber’s business in Russia in 2017. The two companies formed a joint venture, with several Uber executives joining the board of directors of Yandex. A year later, Yandex launched what it claimed was the “world’s first robo-taxi company” in Moscow. The company showed off a completely driverless vehicle at CES in Las Vegas in 2020, then began testing self-driving cars in Ann Arbor. Later that year, it launched a robot delivery pilot with Grubhub, with plans to potentially expand to 250 additional college campuses.

These plans were disrupted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Uber removed its executives from the Yandex board and, after initiating the sale of its Yandex stake last August, accelerated that process after the invasion. Grubhub ended its partnership with Yandex, as did privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo.

In Ann Arbor, Yandex’s small team was rocked by the invasion, the former employee said. Many employees are immigrants who have family in Russia and friends in Ukraine. And despite the company’s efforts to become less dependent on Moscow, the AV division was still dependent on decisions made at Yandex headquarters.

Initially, the message from Moscow was to keep quiet, the employee said. “We were told we had a number of reservations, especially for international employees,” the employee said. “So it will be fine.”

Even Russia’s ban on SWIFT, the international payment system used by banks to send money around the world, seemed to be taken seriously. But then, on March 10, Yandex announced to the Ann Arbor team that they were going to be laid off. The license plates were removed from the test vehicles and they were told that their insurance company had canceled their policy.

“If the governor hadn’t shut us down, I honestly think they probably would have footed the bill for another month,” the employee said in an interview that was conducted before state agencies responded to the claims. from Yandex.

After state regulators pointed out that Yandex still had valid vehicle licenses, the employee recalled that some colleagues had expressed doubts about the claim that Governor Whitmer was indirectly responsible for the layoffs. A former Yandex employee said he contacted the office of a local Michigan lawmaker to confirm, but was unable to do so, according to a screenshot of a group chat shared with The edge.

“As far as I know, my state legislator hasn’t heard anything like the governor pulling licenses,” the employee said in the chat.

“Because it’s wrong,” replied another. “But hey, anything that helps them sleep at night.”

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