May Mobility's self-driving electric shuttles will replace existing diesel buses in downtown Detroit.
The resurgent city of Detroit, which lost 64 percent of its population between 1950 and 2017, is experiencing something it hasn’t seen in decades: urban congestion.
With little public transportation, virtually everyone in the Motor City drives to work, creating traffic and parking challenges, especially downtown.
No one knows this better than Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, the catalyst behind Detroit’s comeback, whose property management firm Bedrock has to hire a fleet of three dozen private shuttle buses to deliver employees to its many downtown office buildings from distant parking facilities up to three miles away.
The buses create their own problems, though, clogging already congested streets 18 hours a day and spewing diesel exhaust while idling curbside during slow times. At rush hour or lunchtime, these 25- or 44-passenger rigs are packed. But much of the day they’re circling with just a couple of lonely riders.
Solving the “last mile” problem is a transportation dilemma that even cities with vast public transit networks are grappling with amid shifting demographics and increased urbanization. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft were supposed to help, but all they’ve done is add to the gridlock.
Autonomous robo-taxis are the next frontier, but a handful of high-profile accidents involving test vehicles are a reminder that the technology still needs more work before self-driving cars are widely deployed.
May Mobility, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based startup, has identified a niche to put autonomous vehicles on the road today, without waiting for mass-market deployment. Its micro-transit service uses six-passenger electric vehicles that steer themselves through traffic on a carefully mapped, closed loop.
Its first commercial deployment begins today in Detroit, where its friendly green-and white shuttles, with a top speed of 25 miles per hour, will blend into the daily fabric of downtown life, displacing those big diesel buses on at least one mile-long Bedrock route.
It’s a practical solution to an existing transportation problem using technology that’s ready now. “We don’t do science projects,” said chief executive Edwin Olson, 41, a University of Michigan professor who worked on advanced vehicle technology at Ford Motor and Toyota Motor before launching May Mobility in January 2017.
By giving real people (not opt-in test subjects) a chance to experience self-driving vehicles in a controlled setting, Olson believes May Mobility will be able to scale the technology more quickly than other companies trying to develop autonomous cars to handle every "edge case" scenario. And by easing people into the whole idea of self-driving cars, it can collect data and customer feedback to factor into future development.
“They’re very open and honest about the fact that their technology is not built to solve for every circumstance and every situation on the road today,” said Kevin Bopp, Bedrock’s vice president of mobility and parking. “That’s why they are able to bring it to market sooner.”
May Mobility’s shuttles rely on the same technology as virtually every other company developing self-driving cars: a redundant suite of lidar, radar and camera sensors. But it adds radio frequency signals embedded in streetlights or signs along the route to provide an added measure of safety. That so-called vehicle-to-infrastructure technology will be critical to future transportation, but May can deploy it now, block-by-block, because it only operates on very short routes.
May Mobility’s business model is also unique because it offers a fully-managed transit service: it provides the vehicles, the maintenance, the site operations crew and – for now – a human in the front seat to take control if necessary.
The company’s goal isn’t just to provide transportation from Point A to Point B, but to help make cities more livable, says chief operating officer Alisyn Malek, 32. “Communities have been waiting for autonomous vehicles…but no one can deliver. They have just the hardware, or they go direct to consumers with no master planning,” she said. “Cities now are being more thoughtful. They don’t want Uber and Lyft to happen again."
While companies like Alphabet’s Waymo and GM Cruise race to rack up more test miles ahead of their mass market launches, Malek said, “We’re the first ones to move to the next phase, and say, how do we make this useful?”
It's a different approach, but May Mobility has believers. The company has raised $11.6 million to date, and just signed an agreement with Magna, one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers, to scale up production to hundreds, and eventually thousands of self-driving EVs. Investors include BMW iVentures, Toyota AI Ventures, Maven Ventures, SV Angel, Tandem Ventures, Trucks Ventures, and YCombinator.
The launch in Detroit follows a brief pilot with Bedrock last year that showed most people overcome their trepidation about self-driving vehicles after riding in one. And that's exactly the point behind May Mobility's strategy to integrate them into daily traffic patterns.
Its vehicles are cute, which makes them approachable, said Malek. "People say, don't call it cute; it's a highly capable robot! But when you think about building trust, there’s nothing better than cute and approachable."