Given technical and regulatory challenges, it may take a decade before fully self-driving cars can be used on U.S. highways. But May Mobility, a start-up based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has already put its self-driving shuttles to work in downtown Detroit.
Founded in 2017 by auto engineers Edwin Olson, Alisyn Malek and Steve Vozar, the company recently scored $11.5 million in seed funding from the venture arms of BMW and Toyota, and major early-stage firms including Maven Ventures and Y Combinator.
Unlike, Alphabet's Waymo, GM-owned Cruise or Tesla, which are all working on level-5 autonomous vehicles, May Mobility's electric shuttles were designed to move along short routes that have been mapped inside of a 10-square-mile footprint. For now, anyway, the buses operate with a human monitor on board.
When needed, the start-up installs sensors and car-readable "stickers" along the shuttle routes. Adding such markers can help the shuttles better understand their environment and more safely navigate through bad weather or around unpredictable pedestrians, bikers and obstacles.
May Mobility's electric "microbuses" drive at a mellow top-speed of 25 miles per hour, not highway speeds.
The start-up plans to set up fleets of shuttles in new locations this year. It hasn't yet disclosed the names of early customers or future destinations.
"We're seeing a lot of interest from municipalities and real estate developers," said COO Malek, formerly of GM. "We expect autonomous vehicles to inspire a lot more public-private partnerships in transportation."
BMW i Ventures' Uwe Higgen, an investor in May Mobility's seed round, thinks it makes sense for the company to deploy its shuttles around long-term parking lots at airports, or on big corporate campuses to move workers around.
Competitors to May Mobility include Navya, Local Motors and Auro Robotics.
Higgen says May Mobility has unique advantages. "This team is looking at constraints a bit differently than the rest of the autonomous world," he said. "They're not trying to solve all the hard problems without any requirements of the infrastructure. That's one reason we expect their shuttles will be in daily operation very soon."
Higgen also lauded the founding team's experience in auto engineering. May Mobility's co-founders have worked on the DARPA Urban Challenge, and for Ford, General Motors and Toyota. CEO Olson is a University of Michigan professor who runs the APRIL AI and robotics lab. That could give the company a recruiting edge.