After Whirlwind 2017, May Mobility Plans to Expand Driverless Fleet

May Mobility, the autonomous vehicle startup based in Ann Arbor, MI, had an action-packed 2017.

The company launched in January, completed a stint in the Y Combinator accelerator over the summer, put driverless shuttles on downtown Detroit streets through a small pilot program in October, and raised more than $11 million over the course of the year from investors. If all goes according to plan in 2018, May hopes to be one of the first mobility companies in the world to replace an existing transportation service with its autonomous vehicles.

Although the terms of the deal are still being finalized, May CEO Ed Olson says the Bedrock family of companies—those overseen by Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert—is poised to turn its October pilot agreement into a full-time, paid contract by the summer. Just like with the pilot, which has now ended, May’s electric shuttles would ferry Bedrock employees between their downtown office buildings and nearby parking garages, replacing diesel buses.

During the autumn pilot with Bedrock, Olson says May’s cars carried more than 200 passengers. For the most part, riders were “delighted” with their driverless experience; the most common piece of feedback, he says, was the desire to have the service available permanently. Riders also offered suggestions for improvement, such as adding cup holders. May successfully reduced the average rider’s wait time, and Olson says that is the kind of the quantifiable improvement May is looking to achieve.

“Most pilots have a huge selection bias in terms of who’s riding—typically, it’s early adopter types,” Olson says. “This pilot was an honest cross-section of society. One in ten were anxious about riding in an autonomous vehicle, but we worked on building comfort and trust. At the end of the ride, they were all smiles.”

And while an autonomous shuttle cruising around a confined area, like downtown Detroit, might not sound as impressive as some of the grand plans announced by other companies in the mobility industry, Olson says May is right where it wants to be. For one thing, mobility technologies are simply not mature enough for widespread use, he maintains, and May has identified a niche market where it can get a leg up on competitors.

“Our whole business premise is to carve away the complexity,” Olson says. “If you look at companies like Uber and Lyft, there are a huge number of challenges involved in standing up a new business with that kind of model. They don’t own the vehicles in their fleets, so where are they going to come from?”

In May’s case, the company is selling “turnkey mobility-as-a-service,” not manufacturing cars. Olson says May buys its fleet vehicle’s chassis and drivetrain, but does all the autonomous technology integration and “creature comfort updates” in-house. It also handles maintenance and upgrades for its customers.

Automakers, meanwhile, are experiencing their own set of mobility challenges. They’re grappling with the business model they’ve honed over decades suddenly shifting under their feet, Olson notes, which inevitably causes uncertainty. May wants to start smaller—at corporate campuses or residential complexes, for example—where there is a defined area of travel—oftentimes on private roads—and very specific transportation needs. Many times, customers will already have a transportation solution in place, but Olson feels May’s services can be safer and more efficient.

“We want to find people with well-scoped transportation problems—customers that know the problem, know the usage and demand, and have a budget to work with,” he says. “We’re trying to be a drop-in replacement for current shuttle systems. We’ve opened a certain percentage of the market, and as the technology develops, the market will get bigger.”

Olson says that as May moves from pilot projects to paid deployments later this year, it will map out routes that are deliberately simple and start out with human safety drivers, who can take the wheel if anything goes wrong. “Everyone in the field says that, but it’s an important message: We’re picking routes so we can remove the human safety driver early and stack the deck in our favor,” he adds.

What else is in store for May in 2018? The 21-person company plans to double in size by the end of the year, and will begin assembling “several dozen” more vehicles in the spring, Olson says. The company also has additional pilots planned in Florida and Texas during the first quarter, but Olson says non-disclosure agreements prevent him from divulging specifics. By late this year or early next, May intends to operate full-time with paying customers in a handful of cities. Olson says he can’t share details yet, but he hopes Detroit is one of them.

“The state of Michigan and the city of Detroit have been terrific to work with,” he adds. “That’s part of the reason we’re excited to be here and do our first deployments here.”

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