I first spoke to CEO and Founder of May Mobility Edwin Olson just over a year ago, not too long after the Detroit-based company was founded. His goal was to help transform Detroit into a mobility hub, utilising autonomous technology for day-to-day public transport systems in urban environments.
Back then, the company planned to launch fully-managed transportation systems within its autonomous shuttles, making travelling safe, personal and effortless. Today, it has realised its vision, operating driverless shuttles in additional cities across the US and closing its Series A funding that has allowed even more expansion. In an industry filled with bright lights, May’s blunt-but-bold approach might just make it a frontrunner.
Olson has been working on autonomous vehicles for 20 years, with stints at MIT and the University of Michigan. Alongside him is a team with similar experience, creating a highly-experienced workforce all under one roof.
Not Just Another Start-up
The rapidly developing autonomous sector is filling up with an influx of companies. Due to this, it can be hard for startups to achieve long-term success. So, what makes May Mobility so different?
Well, unlike many others, the company is channelling its technology into the real world, today. Olson and his team are already serving cities and customers in three US states, motivated by making transportation safer and more equitable.
“We have a tremendous advantage because we’re working with real customers, which lets us learn faster than anyone else,” says Olson. “It’s not just our technology that is improving – we’re learning about the factors that make riders happy while building our operational capabilities that have given us the best unit economics in the industry.”
Many of these players are getting carried away with the technology, which has seen a ‘shoot for the stars’ mentality across the industry. This is all well and good in the initial stages, where new ideas wow audiences, but it fizzles out rather quickly if not bought to market.
So maybe it’s time to call forward ‘boring’ processes that actually work, rather than a celebration of what-could-be?
Olson says that although great autonomous products require great technology, building a successful company is all about solving customers’ problems. “Many companies seem to be focused on R&D and aren’t spending time talking to the people who have real transportation problems. One of the things we’ve learned from our customers is that we can have a tremendous impact on cities with the technology we have currently.”
The $28 Billion Problem – And That’s Just The Start
Last mile transport is notoriously expensive, creating huge problems for mobility companies in cities around the world. However, it isn’t the only issue found in these urban ecosystems. Each city has a complex structure with specific characteristics that can be a nightmare for self-driving vehicles.
With May Mobility launching its self-driving technology in more and more communities across the country, including a new route in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it has to plan and map specific routes effectively, to understand the unique challenges found within each environment.
“We’re focused on short trips where we can provide dramatically better service than traditional services. That includes connector services in urban cores and shuttles for enterprises,” says Olson. “Feeder services to existing mass transit are incredibly important, but because they require vehicles to master large geographic areas, may take longer to arrive to market.”
Autonomous vehicles fall short in terms of performance when compared to the capabilities of a human driver. Olson explains that they cannot see as well or as far, struggle in poor weather, and are limited in the kinds of behaviours that they can perform.
“Virtually all autonomous technology requires an amount of prior knowledge of a road that far exceeds what a human needs. But despite these challenges, some companies are focused on building the ‘perfect product’ – one that exceeds human performance in the full gamut of conditions.”
He adds that this will take many years but, at the same time, says that May Mobility is focused on market segments where speeds are lower and the roadways are more predictable.
A Transformation of Transportation
To achieve an autonomous ecosystem, regulators and transportation planners are vital to progression. May Mobility’s goal is to improve transportation systems so that everyone can get where they want to go, conveniently and safely.
“When we speak with transportation planners, they share our concern that simply adding autonomous-driving capabilities to existing transportation modes could result in worse congestion and greater gaps in accessibility and equity in transportation,” says Olson.
“Instead, we are working towards a transformation of transportation that is fundamentally enabled by self-driving technology, but is different: it’s coordinated and integrated with city infrastructure, reducing congestion while serving higher volumes of users.”
However, this level of cooperation requires the positive engagement of regulators and government transportation planners at all levels. We are probably sick of hearing the word ‘collaborate’ by now, but it’s simply the only way we will see a sustainable network of self-driving vehicles.
This won’t happen overnight, as companies such as May Mobility gradually introducing more and more self-driving technology and starting to serve some use cases. But the software will only improve as time goes on and more people get onboard.
“The technology is only going to improve, allowing self-driving vehicles to appear in an ever-growing number of markets. We will find self-driving technology integrated into today’s kinds of vehicles, but the greater impact will be in new modes of transportation that do not exist today,” adds Olson.
He strongly believes that fleets of centrally-managed, coordinated, and integrated shuttles are necessary for cities to solve their most challenging transportation problems.
“Those types of shuttles don’t exist today and aren’t on the minds of most consumers. But in five years, a sizeable portion of the world will have experienced them – and they will see the tremendous role they could play in their own cities.”