The Metamorphosis

May Mobility’s Edwin Olson speaks to Alex Kreetzer about how Detroit is transforming into a mobility hub.

The Metamorphosis

May Mobility’s Edwin Olson speaks to Alex Kreetzer about how Detroit is transforming into a mobility hub.

Based in Detroit, May Mobility is focused on building day-to-day mobility systems that will improve transit in urban environments. This year, the company plans to launch fully-managed transportation systems within its autonomous shuttles, making traveling safe, personal and effortless. At present, May Mobility operates on selected public and private streets, aiming to deliver exceptional rider satisfaction using its unique technology. Edwin Olson, CEO of May Mobility, has been working on autonomous vehicles for 20 years, first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and then as a faculty member at the University of Michigan. Although the company is still in its infancy, it has a team that already has the knowledge and experience of how to build autonomous cars. Due to this, May Mobility has propelled itself into being a leader of Detroit’s autonomous charge. “During my time at the MIT and the University of Michigan, we weren’t just working with state-of-the-art technology - we were inventing many of the algorithms that are now used throughout the industry,” he explains.

Vehicles are now providing a totally new experience for consumers and May Mobility is utilising this approach to let passengers have the best journey possible with an alternative to dated public transport models such as buses or trains. May Mobility’s shuttles are designed to be personal and seamless, allowing riders to use their transit time however they want. “People traveling together should feel like it’s a comfortable and private space for them to interact,” says Olson. “The physical design of the vehicle reflects this: we have a group of four seats facing each other, surrounded by panoramic windows and a glass roof that creates a really unique and socially-engaging experience. Two additional forward-facing riders get a 49 inch digital display that can deliver media and information backed by high-speed internet access. They can also geek out and see the road through the vehicle’s ‘eyes’ if they want.” Through this fresh approach to transport, New Mobility are focusing on rider experience from start to finish.

An assortment of sensors

One uncertainty in this field is what technology is best for self-driving vehicles, such as LIDAR and radar. Many different companies in the sector have chosen separate routes, which are neither the right or wrong way when it comes to autonomous technology. Unlike autonomous companies who have positioned themself on one side of the fence, Olson and his team are utilising a range of sensors and camera systems in order to reap the benefits from both sides. “Autonomous companies have different philosophies about the kind of sensors they use,” adds Olson. “Tesla, for example, is pretty open about favouring radar and vision over LIDAR. May Mobility, in contrast, has an ‘all of the above’ approach: each sensing modality has strengths and weaknesses, and our sensing approach gets the best of all worlds.”

For most, reliability is the biggest challenge in autonomous vehicles, and a multi-modal approach is the best way to achieve that, although there is also an importance over using sensor data effectively. This helps systems detect and predict obstacles on the road, such as cars, cyclists and pedestrian crossings. May Mobility uses this kind of technology to handle a wide range of public road scenarios involving many kinds of road users, allowing safer and more efficient urban transport. This is extremely important as many people are anxious about self-driving vehicles as it will be a completely new experience for them. In order to overcome concerns, May Mobility has taken on consumers’ views when involving them with real-world testing. “Based on our work with everyday people, we know that a significant fraction have questions or some level of anxiousness about riding in an autonomous car,” says Olson. “By working with them, we have learned a lot about how to make them more comfortable. We are proud of the fact that those anxious riders are almost invariably all smiling at the end of their ride, ready and willing to ride again the next day.”

The Renaissance City

Olson explains that Michigan is an incredible place to build and test automobiles, with more states opening for business. This is great news, as getting real-world experience is incredibly important for autonomous pioneers. “Real-world testing is still the best way to measure the performance of the vehicle and to discover difficult scenarios that you might not have anticipated,” he says. “Secondly, getting real-world people into the car - not early adopters, but everyday people - is the only way to figure out how they’ll react and interact with the technology.” By doing so Olson and his team can identify any issues or improvements early on and continue to work with passengers and authorities to create the best possible outcome once these vehicles are rolled out on a full-scale.  

Detroit’s acceptance of future mobility has also allowed electrification to develop alongside automotive development, with the two going hand-in-hand through mobility services. Electrification is the next step for clean transportation and we are already seeing this shift on our roads, despite most of the market still being dominated by petrol and diesel vehicles. However, mobility services such as May Mobilty’s will help the adoption of EVs, creating a more environmentally-focused city. “EVs are perfect for our market,” says Olson. “They’re not only environmentally-friendly, they’re also passenger friendly - quiet and odour-free. With a fully-managed service like ours, customers will never have to worry about the battery running low or finding a charging station. It’s also good for our fleet maintenance, as we don’t have to ship diesel fuel into the city centre.” 

Moving on from this, future mobility can then remove the need for private vehicle ownership and improve traffic, emissions and the day-to-day lives of Detroit’s inhabitants. Olson believes that, through this, we are moving towards a world where privatised cars will be less common. “For the individual, fleets of autonomous vehicles spare drivers the hassle of parking and getting stuck in traffic. For municipalities struggling with congestion, air quality and the challenges of providing cost-effective transportation services, autonomous vehicles can be a huge relief. Autonomous vehicles will also help cities convert parking lots into pedestrian walkways, green space, and even more restaurants and retail.” Through each level of future transportation, there are improvements waiting to be addressed and, without all three, society will not be able to move forward.  

Motor City to Mobility City

There is always so much focus on Silicon Valley when it comes to exciting new technology, overshadowing other areas in the US, such as Detroit. This could be problematic on the global stage, but Olson believes that there are many different areas of the country that are overcoming the false perception that innovation like this is only possible on the West Coast. “Like many in Silicon Valley, May Mobility believes that big challenges are great opportunities, that new technology can transform old ways of doing things, and those small companies can become giants. We also believe that the midwest is a fantastic place to build a company like that. There’s an incredible bench of talent everywhere we look, fantastic universities turning out engineers and researchers that are second-to-none and the manufacturing resources that will allow us to scale faster than we could anywhere else in the world.” Detroit’s heritage plays to homegrown companies’ advantage as they have a strong manufacturing presence and, with investment in technology from state authorities and the ‘Big Three’, you can see Motor City becoming a leader in the new mobility sector.  

In fact, being located in Detroit allows May Mobility to have a better relationship with automotive companies and suppliers in the region, which allows Olson to collaborate more easily and help drive autonomous technology further. For the time being, there is a lot of competition involved in the sector as companies race to get innovations out, but this also drives development in the market. “There’s a lot going on in Detroit: it’s not just the OEMs, but also the suppliers, and they’re all executing on their autonomous car visions,” says Olson. “Because the potential market is so big, with no single player obviously poised to win, the environment is more competitive than collaborative. In many ways, it’s a ‘jump ball,’ but we think that May Mobility’s technology and business approach gives us a ladder to stand on.” 

From a wider perspective, May Mobility must lock horns with technology giants such as Google and Uber, which have dominated the western market. May Mobility are much smaller than these two companies, however Olson believes that they aren’t invincible. “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. Part of the problem is their market strategy - they’re focused on the ride-hailing market which is huge, but technically difficult and with questionable margins. We’ll see more and more demonstrations but those technical and unit economic challenges will be hard to shake. At the same time, May Mobility will be operating commercial fleets, with our technical and business capabilities accelerated by our real-world experience. We’ve beaten them to market in the self-driving shuttle space, and we’ll beat them to market with a ride-hailing product.”  

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