May Mobility: Driverless Taxis as Alternatives to Buses

The community is the customer when robo-taxis replace fixed-route buses.

Gary Witzenburg, Correspondent

April 22, 2024

3 Min Read
May Mobility Minnesota
May Mobility self-driving vehicle deployed in Grand Rapids, MN.

ANN ARBOR, MI – Say you can’t drive because you’re sick or injured and need a ride to a medical appointment. You’re far from a bus route, Uber/Lyft rides are unavailable or too expensive where you live, and no one else can drive you. What if you could pull out your phone and order up a free or low-cost ride door-to-door…but that vehicle didn’t have a human driver? Would that be your best answer despite some fear or distrust of driverless vehicles?

Edwin Olson, founder and CEO of Ann Arbor, MI-based May Mobility, believes it would. His company currently operates autonomous Toyota Sienna minivans with safety drivers on board in Ann Arbor, Arlington, TX and Grand Rapids, MN – a town of just 14,000 where the population density is too low for fixed-route bus or even Uber/Lyft service – and without safety drivers since 2023 in Sun City, AZ, where much of the population is seniors living in widely distributed single-family homes where city bus service would not serve them well.

Edwin Olson-May Mobility.jpg

Olson (pictured, left), who worked with AVs at DARPA, Ford, Toyota and the University of Michigan before co-founding May in 2017, contends that May’s business plan potentially is more profitable than others because its customer is the community, which can employ May’s services in place of buses, which he says run near-empty most of the time and can cost $150/hour to operate. It’s easier and more convenient for those who need transportation from A to B to simply order it when needed for little or no cost. That cost is higher when safety drivers are required, but much lower (and profits way higher) when they can be eliminated, as they have been in Sun City.

As everyone knows, some larger AV companies have had unfortunate accidents, which Olson sees as “bad PR” for the business. But he asserts that May’s hardware and its software process is so concentrated on safety that it earns friendly insurance rates.

“We take safety incredibly seriously because we will be liable for any failures,” he tells the Detroit-based Automotive Press Assn. in an April 3 online press conference. “We spend a lot of time walking our insurers through our safety systems and get a really good deal as a result.”

The cornerstone of that commitment is May’s proprietary “Multi Policy Decision Making” (MPDM) system, “which reframes the challenge for AVs: Rather than telling the vehicle what to do when, which is what rules-based systems do, MPDM continually runs real-time, on-board simulations to virtually imagine thousands of possible scenarios every second and enable the vehicle to decide for itself which action is best to drive safely.”

MPDM leads to “emergent behavior, where the vehicle can solve problems that we never considered, even the first time it encounters a situation,” the company contends, “and can handle unique challenges, perform more reliably and scale to new cities faster than rules-based systems.”

It cites more than 320,000 (and counting) autonomy-enabled rides in several public transit applications across the U.S. and (in 2021) in Hiroshima, Japan, as evidence.

By working collaboratively with existing transit systems rather than duplicating their efforts, May’s intent is to optimize less-efficient routes with on-demand AV technologies within geofenced areas. “Let’s partner with cities to provide better transportation alternatives,” Olson says. “Some AV companies have had adversarial relationships with cities. But the city is our customer, not an adversary.”

He predicts further expansion, including to Detroit – where bus service is difficult to provide due to the city’s vast urban spread – in 2025. He believes May will provide 75% of its trips without safety drivers by 2027 (vs. 5% in 2023) and that the AV industry could amount to hundreds of thousands of vehicles long-term. 

“Our business model is to sell a contract for transportation services for a given area and prescribed hours of the day,” he adds. “This industry was badly overhyped and not performing up to expectations, and there are limitations. But those limitations are slipping away.”

Among May Mobility’s partners in this effort are Toyota, tire manufacturer Bridgestone and Via, a provider of AI-assisted routing and booking software.

About the Author(s)

Subscribe to a WardsAuto newsletter today!
Get the latest automotive news delivered daily or weekly. With 5 newsletters to choose from, each curated by our Editors, you can decide what matters to you most.