When most of us think about autonomous driving in the United States, we think of Silicon Valley. But one startup is stirring things up in Detroit, the traditional home of the American auto industry.
May Mobility launched the first commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles in Motor City, in June 2018, a year and a half since its founding in 2017. Steve Vozar, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of May Mobility reveals how his company accelerated so quickly.
“We saw that big companies were looking at autonomous vehicles as a product. We thought there had to be a better way to solve the problem,” says Vozar. The solution was to constrain the route of autonomous vehicles (AVs) with geofences in small areas to have an impact in the near-term.
The route to getting the service launched began in the Autonomy, Perception, Robotics, Interfaces, and Learning (APRIL) lab at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, headed by fellow May Mobility co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Edwin Olson. Olson was Vozar’s advisor at the Robotics lab. Olson worked at Ford Motor Company’s the Next Generation Vehicle project. Then in 2016, Olson joined the Toyota Research Institute where he was co-director for Autonomous Driving Development. The two founders, through ‘collaborative discussions’, devised a viable company and service.
“We wanted to make sure we jumped into something worthwhile before leaving our day jobs,” says Vozar. They were thinking about autonomous robotic vehicles as a block by block, and as a business-to-business solution with low-speed and redundancy. The operation of the vehicles had to be a closed, fully-managed transportation service.
The company’s name, May Mobility, refers to where Olson and Vozar first worked together – the APRIL lab. What month comes after April? May, of course.
May Mobility Autonomous Shuttle Promo. Credit: May Mobility.
The Next Steps
In order to get funding, Olson and Vozar pitched their concept to GM Venture’s investor Alisyn Malek, who was responsible for GM buying Cruise Automation. Malek didn’t invest but she was very impressed and decided to join the company as the Co-Founder and Chief Operations Officer.
Their solution is to offer a shuttle service for businesses to move people around a small area to select locations. The first deployment provides a shuttle service for a real estate company to transport Quicken Loan employees to offices in downtown Detroit.
May Mobility incorporates several proprietary technologies with hardware provided by its partner Magna. The electric low-speed vehicles (LSV) are made in the U.S. and can drive up to 35 mph but are constrained to 25 mph. They are perfect for operation design, says Vozar. The six-seater vehicles are on-boarded with May Mobility’s self-driving tech at its facility in Ann Arbor.
“In order to make the vehicles autonomous, we have to know every nook and cranny of the route,” says Vozar. The LSV’s have multiple sensors such as radar, LiDAR and cameras. The computers on board the vehicles send data to the cloud for monitoring through a combination of 4G cellular data and shortwave radio. Additionally, the team installed proprietary roadside units (RSU) the route.
In Detroit, its AVs replaced a diesel bus. The one-mile route runs nineteen a hours a day for five days a week with two or three different vehicles running at different times of the day. An attendant in the vehicle verifies that riders are Quicken Loan employees. The team manages the whole service including maintenance and charging of the vehicles.
“The response has been great,” says Vozar. “It has increased reliability. People are excited about it. The wait times have been reduced.” The shuttles are able to drive through Greektown, Cadillac Square and an area where the police ride on horses, all tricky to navigate.
The company has since announced plans to roll-out its shuttle services into Columbus, Ohio and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“There is a misconception that technology has to be done in Silicon Valley. May Mobility is the first commercial commuter autonomous shuttle and it’s pretty much all done in Michigan, Detroit and local areas,” says Vozar. His company is planning to offer on-demand rides in the future.