How May Mobility went completely driverless while avoiding the pitfalls of robotaxis

You’ve probably never heard of autonomous vehicle operator May Mobility, because the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based company is exceptionally good at avoiding the kind of headlines generated by other AV companies.

In the six years it has been in operation, there have been no injuries, accidents, blocked intersections or mass layoffs. While there have been some problems, the company has proven to be an outlier among AV operators by continuing to raise money while others have seen their funding dry up.

And now May Mobility is ready to go fully self-driving, a milestone that allows the company to take stock of its successes and look ahead to the future.

“The most capital-efficient AV company the world has ever seen”

“It’s not robotaxis,” Edwin Olson, CEO of May Mobility, said of his company’s business model. “We sell long-term transport contracts, mainly to companies and governments, which gives us a very easy entry point to deploy the technology step by step, which keeps our burn rate low. And to truly be the most capital-efficient AV company the world has ever seen.”

Robotaxi companies like Waymo and Cruise say the future of autonomous driving is an Uber-like service in densely populated cities. They claim that the only way to recoup the costs of developing the technology is to provide a 24/7 service without safety drivers, targeting the widest possible segment of consumers.

That’s not the strategy of May Mobility, which instead focuses on on-demand transportation in geofenced, easily mapped business districts, college campuses and gated residential communities.

“Our strategy here is to really stack the deck in our favor,” Olson said. “I think most people view rider-only as a technological milestone. And it is, but it is much more than that.”

“Our strategy here is to really stack the deck in our favor.”

May’s first fully self-driving service on public roads launches in Sun City, Arizona, a retirement community outside Phoenix. The company is partnering with app-based microtransit service Via to connect it with potential passengers. The vehicles – Toyota Sienna minivans retrofitted with autonomous sensors and hardware – will be free to use, but will only operate Monday through Friday afternoons.

While Phoenix has a fair number of self-driving vehicles — Waymo operates there, as did Cruise before a pedestrian in San Francisco grounded its fleet — Sun City hasn’t seen as much activity. But Olson says it’s perfect for May’s first driverless service. The lanes are wide, the pedestrian walkways are separated and protected, and the weather is mostly sunny and clear.

“We want to start in the most slam-dunk environments,” Olson said.

There is no shortage of challenges. May’s first vehicle platform was a modified GEM shuttle that could carry approximately six passengers. But the vehicle struggled in bad weather and would frequently break down, according to a 2020 story Venture Beat. In addition, the company found it difficult to achieve Level 4 operations where a safety driver could be removed from the vehicle.

And municipal partners began to grow frustrated with the slow progress. A top Rhode Island official criticized May in a 2019 interview, criticizing the company’s inability to prove its vehicles were safer than human drivers and its failure to equip its shuttles with working air conditions.

But May has shown perseverance. While other businesses have shuttered or closed, the company continues to operate and currently operates in four cities.

“There have been incidents. Most of these are not our fault,” Olson said. “You know, these urban environments can be chaotic and complex.”

“There have been incidents. Most of these are not our fault.”

Like other AV companies, May’s self-driving vehicles will be monitored by a team of remote workers. The vehicles are not controlled with a joystick (that is, they are not controlled remotely), but the remote monitors can send suggestions if problems arise. Still, the vehicle can choose to override the suggestion if it decides the situation is unsafe, Olson said.

Robotaxi companies like Cruise generated praise from some customers but also outrage over incidents in which their vehicles blocked emergency vehicles or caused traffic problems. Olson said May won’t have the same problems because its customers are the cities themselves. May is incentivized to address municipal issues or risk having his contract terminated.

“We take the well-being of cities very seriously,” Olson said. “We want to be the good guys in the room. We don’t want to cause blockages or traffic jams.”

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