May Mobility CEO: We’ll Beat Waymo, Uber, and Cruise to Market

When we spoke with Ed Olson, CEO of May Mobility, in January, he told us that his driverless-vehicle company had raised a little over $11 million in seed funding in 2017. Last week, May disclosed more details about its $11.5 million seed round: it was led by venture investment arms of Toyota and BMW, and included participation from Y Combinator, the startup accelerator that May participated in last summer; Maven Ventures; and others.

May, which is based in Ann Arbor, MI, and sells  mobility as a service, has already been operating driverless shuttles in downtown Detroit. The company aims to replace human-operated diesel buses on corporate and university campuses, in retirement communities, and on other short-distance routes, where it sees a niche for its services.

“Our whole business premise is to carve away the complexity,” May CEO Ed Olson told Xconomy in the January interview. “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 an e-mail exchange last week, Olson went into more detail about how May’s business model differs from the competition. May buys the chassis and drivetrain systems for its fleet of electric minibuses, but does the autonomous integration in-house.

“The number one thing that stands out about May Mobility’s approach is the emphasis on system-level design,” Olson said. “We are building not only the autonomy software stack, but also the low-level electro-mechanical systems within the car and sensing technology outside of the car.”

This approach, he feels, is the only way to deliver autonomous vehicles reliable enough to operate without human safety drivers. May also strives to “squeeze more performance out of every component,” which has a significant impact on the company’s bottom line, he added.

On the technical front, Olson noted the importance of predicting the intent of other vehicles and pedestrians on the road. “May Mobility is building its autonomy stack on top of technologies developed over a decade of research. These include state-of-the-art localization, perception, and planning methods that give May’s vehicles the ability to predict the intentions of other road users and to plan in ways that reflect the likely future interactions of those road users.”

He also addressed the competitive landscape with a bold prediction. “May Mobility, like Waymo, Cruise, and Uber, [is] building full-featured technology stacks designed for the full range of autonomous driving scenarios—even if our first markets will be more structured,” Olson said. “Google, Uber, and Cruise have all invested massively in their teams, but workable unit economics—which require no safety driver AND affordable vehicles—still appear to be years away. We expect to beat all three of them to market with a successful product.”

Of course, there are lots of other players trying to get self-driving cars on the road, and most of them have a different plan to get there. (See Aurora Innovation’s big funding round last week, for example.) Olson believes the companies that will be most successful will build products at the intersection of technology and market need.

“But there are multiple possible solutions, some of which are enormous markets with harder technology challenges, and others that are more technically accessible,” Olson said. “May’s central hypothesis is that launching in those more accessible markets will catapult us into the market.”

Responding to a question about his investors, Olson said, “I can’t speak on behalf of Toyota AI Ventures and BMW i Ventures, but I believe Toyota and BMW were excited about both our technical capability and our approach to the market.”

In other Toyota mobility news, the automaker has announced it is creating a new $2.8 billion company to advance autonomous vehicle technology. Called Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development, or TRI-AD, the company was created in partnership with auto suppliers Aisin Seiki and Denso to jointly develop “fully integrated, production-quality software for automated driving,” according to a Toyota press release.

TRI-AD plans to hire up to 1,000 people and is currently scouting a location for its office in Tokyo. James Kuffner, TRI’s chief technology officer, will serve as TRI-AD’s CEO. TRI currently maintains offices in Ann Arbor; Cambridge, MA; and Silicon Valley.

Xconomy senior editor Jeff Engel contributed to this report.

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