Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

You probably haven’t heard of autonomous vehicle operator May Mobility because the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based company is exceptionally good at avoiding the types of headlines generated by other AV companies.

In its six years in operation, there haven’t been any injuries, crashes, blocked intersections, or mass layoffs. While there have been some struggles, 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 driverless, a milestone that has the company taking stock of its successes — and looking ahead to the future.

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

“It’s not robotaxis,” May Mobility CEO Edwin Olson said of his company’s business model. “We’re selling long-term transportation contracts, primarily to businesses and governments, which builds us a really easy on-ramp to deploy the technology step by step, keeping our burn rate low. And being really the most capital-efficient AV company that the world has ever seen.”

Robotaxi ventures like Waymo and Cruise say the future of autonomous driving is an Uber-like service in dense cities. They argue that the only way to recoup the costs of developing the technology is to run a 24/7 service without safety drivers, targeting as broad a section of consumers as possible.

That is not May Mobility’s strategy, which is instead focused on fixed-route transportation in geofenced, easily mapped business districts, college campuses, and closed residential communities.

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

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

May’s first fully driverless service on public roads will launch in Sun City, Arizona, a retirement community outside of Phoenix. The company is working with app-based microtransit service Via to connect it with potential riders. Its vehicles — Toyota Sienna minivans retrofitted with autonomous sensors and hardware — will be free to use but will only operate Monday through Friday in the afternoons.

While Phoenix has its fair share of driverless vehicles — Waymo operates there, as did Cruise before a pedestrian injury in San Francisco forced it to ground 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 separate and protected, and the weather is mostly sunny and clear.

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

There has been no shortage of challenges. May’s first vehicle platform was a modified GEM shuttle that could carry around six passengers. But the vehicle struggled in inclement weather and would break down frequently, according to a 2020 story in VentureBeat. Moreover, the company found it difficult to achieve Level 4 operations in which a safety driver could be removed from the vehicle.

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

But May has shown perseverance. While other companies have shuttered or been shut down, the firm continues to putter along, currently operating in four cities.

“We have had incidents. Most of them not our fault,” Olson said. “You know, these downtown environments can be chaotic and complex.”

“We have had incidents. Most of them not our fault.”

Much like other AV companies, May’s driverless vehicles will be monitored by a team of remote employees. The vehicles aren’t being joysticked — which is to say, they aren’t remote-operated — but the remote monitors can send suggestions when problems arise. Even so, 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 for incidents in which its vehicles blocked emergency vehicles or created traffic headaches. Olson said that May won’t have the same problems because its customers are the cities themselves. May is incentivized to address municipal concerns or risk having its contract terminated.

“We take the welfare of cities extremely seriously,” Olson said. “We want to be the good guys in the space. We don’t want to be clogging or adding to congestion.”

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