6 Months In Business, Autonomous Vehicles On The Road: Meet Ann Arbor's May Mobility

A shuttle pulls away from the curb in downtown Detroit on a weekday night, ferrying workers between their parking garage and office. General Motors’ skyscraper headquarters, the Renaissance Center, looms ahead.

It’s a setting that’s indelibly connected to the car and driver. But this electric car has a 49-inch LCD screen in place of a dashboard. There’s no steering wheel, and an engineer occupies the driver’s seat. In the Motor City, the future is here, and it has a top speed of 25 miles per hour.

“We are fully autonomous now,” Edwin Olson, the CEO of Ann Arbor startup May Mobility, tells the shuttle’s five other occupants.

Olson’s company launched in May, a coincidence with the company’s name. The robotics lab where Olson works at the University of Michigan is called “APRIL,” for Autonomy, Perception, Robotics, Interfaces and Learning.

“‘May’ seemed like the natural thing for what comes next,” Olson said. The startup recently closed its second equity funding round, he said.

The university holds the key to how a 6-month-old company is testing an autonomous shuttle on city streets; most or all of May Mobility’s staff have a maize-and-blue connection.

While the autonomy stack grafted on a Polaris Industries Inc. PII Gem electric shuttle is the first built under the May Mobility moniker, it’s the sixth completed by the team behind the company, said chief technology officer Steve Vozar.

“This is not our first rodeo,” Vozar said.

Real-World Testing

Unlike some other autonomy developers — notably Tesla Inc TSLA, whose play is camera-based — May Mobility takes an inclusionary approach to autonomous technology, including radar and LIDAR, said Olson.

“We are an all-of-the-above user of sensors.”

Vozar said: “We’re really pragmatic about the sensor suite we choose. We know there’s no silver bullet.”

The pilot testing in Detroit, completed with about 200 employees from the Quicken Loans family of companies, gave May Mobility instant feedback from real-world passengers on specifics such as the speed with which the shuttle navigates corners and the reactions of people with no prior experience in driverless vehicles. The shuttles were integrated with the app RideHop for the pilot testing.

“This is the first pilot I’m aware of anywhere, at least in the U.S., where people going about their ordinary lives suddenly found an autonomous vehicle on their path home,” Olson said.

May Mobility is pursuing additional pilot testing in Michigan, Florida and Texas, he said.

As the shuttle makes a right turn near Detroit’s Greektown district during an October ride, it has the right-of-way. Another vehicle makes a quick left in the May Mobility’s shuttle’s path, and the autonomous system brings it to a halt. Not every Detroit driver would cede their right-of-way so willingly, but when there’s no driver, caution is king.

Passenger Carol Baker, who works as an application status coordinator at Title Source, said it was her second time riding in a May Mobility shuttle.

“The first time I was a little apprehensive — I thought, what if it loses control?” Baker said.

She was reassured after speaking with a May Mobility staffer. “He said it has layers and layers of technology to take over if anything should ever happen.”

Baker is “absolutely” open to autonomous transportation. “In fact, I see it as a wave of the future,” she said.

Silicon Valley And Detroit: ‘A Weird Blending Of Culture’

May Mobility’s goal is to build the autonomy stack that will change the world with its social impact and effect on cities, Olson told Benzinga.

Olson has previously worked with large-scale autonomy projects at both Ford Motor Company F and Toyota Motor Corp (ADR) TM. He’s after a different outcome with his own startup, beginning with the fact that it produces shuttles, not passenger cars, meaning that May Mobility will operate its own vehicles.

“A lot of other companies in state are basically asking the question ‘what do we have to develop to go after the transportation market as a whole?’” he said. “We are really flipping it around and saying, ‘Where can we go serve now given the technology we have?’”

To that end, May Mobility is aiming to put shuttles into regular service in the next calendar year, Olson said.

“We want to build something that works and we want to find a way to make it work as soon as possible.”

Back on Beaubien Street in downtown Detroit, May Mobility chief operations officer Alisyn Malek said Michigan’s automotive history makes it a natural choice for a mobility startup.

“There is a lot of software talent that exists in Silicon Valley, but at the same time there’s a core level of experience that exists in Detroit around integrating the systems, making them safe and reliable and making sure they have high enough quality to last over time,” she said.

May Mobility isn’t alone: General Motors Company GM announced Detroit as one of three test cities for autonomous Chevrolet Bolts.

In Ann Arbor, automakers use the Mcity autonomous proving ground for testing.

“What you’re seeing is a weird blending of culture,” Malek said. “You do have OEMs that are opening up shop out in Silicon Valley, but you also have Silicon Valley companies opening up shop here in order to take advantage of the talent we have.”

Uber and Alphabet Inc GOOGL GOOG’s Waymo have engineering offices in the Detroit area, and Tesla has a manufacturing presence in Michigan, Malek said.

“There’s a definite balance being struck, and it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

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A May Mobility shuttle on Monroe Street in downtown Detroit. Photo by Dustin Blitchok.

Posted In: DetroitEdwin OlsonMay MobilityQuicken LoansSteve VozarUniversity of MichiganWaymoTravelStartupsExclusivesTechInterviewGeneral