How to go fully driverless while avoiding the dangers of robotaxis

How to go fully driverless while avoiding the dangers of robotaxis

You may not have heard of self-driving vehicle player May Mobility because the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based company is exceptionally good at avoiding the kinds of headlines that other autonomous vehicle companies generate.

During six years of operation, there have been no injuries, accidents, blocked intersections or mass layoffs. Despite some difficulties, the company has proven to be an outlier among AV players by continuing to raise money while others have seen their funding dry up.

Now, May Mobility is ready to transform into a fully self-driving car, a significant milestone that has prompted the company to take stock of its successes and look to the future.

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

“It’s not a robotaxi,” Edwin Olson, CEO of May Mobility, said of his company’s business model. “We sell long-term transportation contracts, primarily to companies and governments, which builds a really easy path for us to deploy the technology step by step, keeping our burn rate low. And truly being the most capital efficient autonomous vehicle company the world has ever seen.”

Robotaxi projects like Waymo and Cruise say the future of self-driving is an Uber-like service in crowded cities. They argue that the only way to recover the costs of developing the technology is to operate a 24/7 service without the need for safety engines, and to target the widest possible segment of consumers.

That’s not the strategy of May Mobility, which instead focuses on fixed-route transportation in geofenced and easily mapped commercial areas, college campuses, and gated communities.

“Our strategy here is to stack the cards in our favor,” Olson said. “I think most people think that just a passenger is a technological breakthrough. And it is, but it’s much more than that.”

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

The first fully driverless service will launch on public roads in May in Sun City, Arizona, a retirement community outside Phoenix. The company is working with app-based microtransit service Via to connect it with potential passengers. Its vehicles – Toyota Sienna minibuses retrofitted with autonomous sensors and devices – will be free to use but will only operate Monday to Friday in the afternoon.

While Phoenix has its fair share of self-driving 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 the same amount of activity. But Olson says it’s perfect for the first driverless service in May. The paths are wide, the footpaths are separated and protected, and the weather is mostly sunny and clear.

“We want to start in the riskiest environments,” Olson said.

There was no shortage of challenges. The first vehicle platform in May was a modified GEM shuttle that could carry about six passengers. But the car struggled in inclement weather and frequently broke down, according to the 2020 story venturebeat. Furthermore, the company found it difficult to achieve Level 4 operations by which a safety driver could be removed from the vehicle.

Its municipal partners are beginning to feel frustrated by the slow progress. A senior Rhode Island official criticized May in a 2019 interview, criticizing the company’s inability to prove its vehicles are safer than human drivers and its failure to equip its shuttles with working weather conditions.

But May showed perseverance. While other companies have closed or shut down, the company continues to operate, currently operating in four cities.

“We’ve had accidents. Most of them are not our fault,” Olson said. “You know, these downtown environments can be chaotic and complicated.”

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

Like many other autonomous vehicle companies, My driverless vehicles will be monitored by a team of remote employees. The vehicles are not controlled — that is, they are not operated remotely — but remote monitoring devices can send suggestions when problems arise. However, a vehicle can choose to override the suggestion if it determines the situation is unsafe, Olson said.

Robotaxi companies like Cruise have drawn praise from some customers, but they have also drawn anger over incidents in which their vehicles have blocked emergency vehicles or created traffic headaches. Olson said May would not face the same problems because her clients were the cities themselves. May is incentivized to address the municipality’s concerns or risk having her contract terminated.

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

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