Partners of the A2GO Initiative gathered at the Kerrytown Farmers Market Tuesday morning to announce the launch of a new autonomous vehicle shuttle service.
May Mobility, a start-up at the University and the company that created new shuttle service, is the first autonomous vehicle company to shuttle passengers in Ann Arbor, running from Kerrytown to the south of downtown Ann Arbor. The shuttle fleet consists of four hybrid Lexus SUVs and one wheelchair-accessible vehicle. The service will operate from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Monday through Friday along prescribed routes in downtown Ann Arbor, circling between their 21 designated stops.
Each car is supervised by an Autonomous Vehicle Operator sitting in the driver’s seat. The operators are there for safety, manually driving the vehicles around unusual situations, like a double-parked car or making an unprotected left turn across traffic. They also speak with Mobility employees at the Ann Arbor headquarters to report hiccups in the driving experience, like problems on the road or using the app.
Edwin Olson, May Mobility CEO and U-M Electrical Engineering and Computer Science professor currently on leave, said at the event that Ann Arbor was a great place for a company like his to grow. Olson said May Mobility’s headquarters in Ann Arbor created more than 20 new jobs with this shuttle service launch since its public announcement in September.
“Ann Arbor is a great place to look for really experienced technicians, as well as people who are just getting started,” Olson said. “The University of Michigan continues to be a real source of talent and partnership for us.”
Olson said May Mobility’s partnership with the City of Ann Arbor began long before this week’s launch. The collaboration helped May Mobility determine the service area of their vehicles based on a number of factors, including speed limit, street density and traffic congestion.
“We like to do things with cities, not to them,” Olson said. “So, it’s really important to figure out who are the stakeholders (and) how do you make sure that the people who you’re trying to serve are part of the conversation from the very beginning.”
Greg McGuire, associate director at MCity — a research center at the University focused on autonomous driving — echoed the need to reflect on the broader implications of autonomous vehicles in Ann Arbor.
“We’re interested in the engineering challenges, yes, but I think just as important is their potential societal impact,” McGuire said. “We want to build a better world, (and) learning by doing is a requirement. A2GO helps MCity go from our academic labs at the University to a living lab in the city of Ann Arbor.”
Olson spoke of May Mobility’s prioritization of safety first, which aligns with the need for supervised autonomous driving at this time.
“Safety is number one, and our second priority is experience for both the people in the car and people around us,” Olson said. “We want to make sure that we’re not holding up traffic or that we’re not being a nuisance to other people going about their lives. Then autonomy is third.”
Engineering senior Ryan Krawec rode in one of May Mobility’s vehicles on Tuesday and said he was not put off by the supervised driving.
”The car drove very human-like, and I couldn’t tell if the driver was driving or if the car was driving,” Krawec said. “When we stopped at a left turn, I asked the driver if he was driving and the driver said he was. But I wasn’t that surprised because I know autonomous vehicles are not fully self-driving yet.”
Krawec said he believes autonomous vehicles can reduce the number of fatal car accidents.
“I think autonomous vehicles are going to be a great thing for society,” Krawec said. “Right now most car accidents are caused by humans. In the future, if we can eliminate those accidents caused by humans, then we can save lives.”
Olson said May Mobility is also concerned with the safety of pedestrians outside of their vehicle. One of their partners, !important Safety Technologies, is an auto collision safety software company whose technology is incorporated into May Mobility’s vehicles. Hannah Osborn, director of New Business Development at !important Safety Technologies, said their software alerts nearby May Mobility vehicles if there is a pedestrian nearby.
“People associate phones with distracted driving and distracted walking,” Osborn said. “Let’s turn that around and use it to protect them. With our software, you’re able to turn your phone essentially into a beacon to let others know that you’re there.”
However, to alert the vehicle by taking over the brakes, for example, the pedestrian needs to be a user of the !important Safety Technologies app, which Osborn said she recognizes is a barrier.
“We’re also realistic, so we are partnering with companies that are also in the safety space — for example, insurance companies — and we are incorporating our alerts through their apps where their users have already given permission to be tracked,” Osborn said.
Olson said to the crowd at the farmers market that his broader vision of May Mobility is to be environmentally conscious and socially accessible.
“If you end up with segmentation in your transportation system, you end up with crappy systems that don’t work well,” Olson said. “I think the key thing is, how do you get everyone to use public transit? … It’s really important to us to figure out how (to) serve all kinds of people.”
In preparation for its launch, May Mobility held a contest in September for a “creative, clever and memorable name” for one of their vehicles, with the only rule being that it must start with the letter “M.”
Michigan Medicine assistant professor Alecia Daunter won the contest with the name “Mayble,” combining May Mobility with “able” to highlight the desire of her patients with sensory, cognitive and physical disabilities to achieve mobility independence.
“The goal is really that people are participating in their communities with their friends and family and they’re able to experience all the same things around the city that anyone else would, using the same technology that everyone else is using,” Daunter said.
Another goal for May Mobility is to provide riders with quality public transportation and draw them into using public transportation more frequently, Olson said.
“If you can reduce the barrier for transportation and improve the rider experience, then you can draw people into public transit,” Olson said. “And if you can get people to start sharing vehicles and maybe to not own their own car, you can really transform the cities around us.”
Daily Staff Reporter Elissa Welle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.