BY MARTIN RUDIGIER
ME 302C - The Future of the Automobile - Mobility Entrepreneurship is a Stanford course taught by Reilly Brennan and Stephen Zoepf. The Spring 2018 course will feature a series of guest speakers across the spectrum of the mobility industry, with Zoox, May Mobility, Waymo Drive.ai, Waybots, Phantom Auto featured among others.
Michigan-based startup May Mobility plans to operate the transportation systems that people use every day. They are starting by operating self-driving, electric micro shuttles for low-speed, short-distance transportation. The shuttles are based on the Polaris GEM vehicle and outfitted with a range of sensors and May’s proprietary autonomous driving software.
The company was founded less than a year ago by a team of automotive industry and robotics veterans and has recently raised $11.5 million in seed funding to get autonomous shuttles on the road. I had the opportunity to speak with co-founder and COO Alisyn Malek who currently leads the company’s business and scaling operations.
My biggest take away from this conversation was an appreciation for the company’s different approach in tackling the autonomous vehicle challenge. When I first saw a picture of their shuttles (see above), I was a bit skeptical of the company’s ability to build trust with potential riders. Given that their shuttles look like supersized golf carts, I was curious to learn about the reasons for their rather unusual vehicle choice. Given that we’re still years away from L4 and L5 autonomy, the company’s strategy to start deploying lightweight shuttles in low-speed environments makes a lot of sense. By providing a fully managed transportation service to cities and communities, May is able to gain valuable insights into the operational aspects of public transportation (e.g. optimal routing, maintenance schedules, etc.) and provide a better customer experience to commuters. Overall, this is a great example for the increasing collaboration between transportation startups and the public sector, which has the potential to drastically change the way we think about public transportation in the US today.
As a small startup, you are competing with companies like Waymo and Uber in making autonomous vehicles to the road. What is May Mobility’s competitive advantage?
Today, there is no company that is actually able to put fully self-driving vehicles on the road without a safety driver behind the steering wheel. L4 and L5 autonomy is a really tough engineering challenge to solve, and we think it will take years until this technology will be available to the end consumer in unconstrained ways (e.g. as mobility-as-a-service offerings covering whole cities).
The idea behind May Mobility was to use what already works in self-driving technology today and think about use cases and environments where existing technology is already sufficient to provide fully autonomous transportation. Our core competencies are in (1) developing the autonomous vehicle stack and (2) providing the operational backbone to manage the shuttle fleets incl. cleaning, maintenance, routing, etc. At May, we work closely with communities and cities to understand the problems they face in providing transportation services in order to provide superior solutions for their transportation needs.
How do you work with cities and communities?
When we work with communities and cities, there are two basic scenarios:
Why did you choose a lightweight and low-speed vehicle as the basis for your shuttles?
The benefits of using a lightweight and low-speed vehicle like the Polaris GEM for our shuttles are twofold:
What are the reactions of other drivers to these vehicles, given that they are moving at relatively slow speed?
First of all, our shuttles are only allowed to operate on roadways up to 35mph at speeds up to 25 mph, so you won’t find them on any highways. Road rage is a very real problem facing autonomous car developers and we try to be very strategic about selecting routes that minimize this potential risk. We map what the traffic patterns are on a certain route and then decide whether it is safe to operate our vehicles. In general, busy traffic patterns are fine, but it really depends on the speed at which vehicles are moving. If we see that our vehicles might slow down traffic on a certain route, we would avoid it and choose routes where our vehicles are able to move with the natural speed of traffic.
Given these benefits of low-speed environments, when do you plan to have fully autonomous shuttles on the road (i.e. get rid of the safety drivers)?
Right now, we still have safety drivers in all of our shuttles, as we are still validating our technology. Once we have validated our system within a certain environment, however, we will be able to remove safety drivers from our vehicles on validated routes. Our goal is to start removing safety drivers on some routes for some times of day within the next 12 to 18 months.
From your experience, what is the sentiment on automated vehicles in cities and communities outside of Silicon Valley?
In general, we have found that cities and communities are excited about automated vehicles, particularly those that already provide public transportation services. Demand for public transportation usually peaks in morning and evening hours, which makes it hard for cities and communities to schedule the shifts of their drivers most effectively. In addition, utilization (i.e. the number of passenger in a bus) can fluctuate significantly throughout the day. Our self-driving shuttles can solve many of these issues, and allow for more flexible demand-response in times of increased transportation needs (e.g. for events). And cities and communities are excited to provide better service to their residents.
Do you plan to focus solely the public transportation segment or are there other plans in May’s foreseeable future?
For now, we are focusing on public transportation, where we can replace heavily under-utilized buses with our shuttles to provide better service to residents. In the longer term, we might expand our product portfolio to bigger shuttles (i.e. the size of current buses) and premium vehicles.