Ann Arbor startup May Mobility successfully tested their fleet of driverless cars on the streets of Detroit in October, and now plan to expand the testing to Florida and Texas.
Edwin Olson, the CEO of May Mobility, started out working with Toyota’s autonomous vehicles program, and then decided he could make more of a difference by creating his own company. In January 2017, Olson created May Mobility.
“I think that too much time is going by, and there are a lot of things that we can actually do, but a lot of companies are taking paths that will take many more years to turn into real world products,” Olson said. “So part of our approach is really about having real world impact as soon as possible.”
Olson discussed all of the advantages of driverless cars, from safety to the environmental benefits of switching from gas cars to a greener solution. As an example, he discussed the potential commercial benefits of being able to have autonomous vehicles transport people from hotels to restaurants. He also discussed the longer-term benefits, such as the possibility of restructuring city development.
“Huge amounts of real estate are devoted to parking, and that’s basically because nobody wants to walk anywhere, so you build a lot of parking next to every possible place people want to go,” Olson said. “The problem is that then you provision the parking next to each building in accordance with that building’s sort of peak demand, which leads to city planners or property developers creating far more parking than is really necessary. If you can efficiently get people into a neighborhood and then transport them within that neighborhood without getting them to re-park, you can reclaim that land and turn it into more retail or more parks, and that’s really exciting to the city planners and property developers that we talk to.”
Aside from being located in Ann Arbor and employing many University of Michigan alumni, May Mobility has major ties to the University. Olsen said they have licensed technology with the University that has been imperative for getting the fleet of cars to work, as well as technology that helps ensure vehicle safety.
"Getting our cars on public roads within our first months of operation couldn't have happened without this relationship with U-M," Olson said in University press release.
Steve Vozar, May Mobility’s chief technology officer and one of the many University alums employed by the company, received his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D in Engineering at the University.
Vozar talked about how May Mobility differed from competitors because they were done waiting for someone else to produce a functioning driverless car company.
“To me it’s really exciting to be at the forefront of a transportation revolution,” Vozar said. “I’ve worked on other autonomous vehicle projects before, and the approach that we have with May Mobility is unique and very grounded in reality, and it’s an approach that will market sooner than we think other competitors will be able to do: the structure, environment, going block by block and making sure the system can handle everything we can throw at it. There’s a realism associated with that – we’re not waiting for the next breakthrough in AI, we want to generate business in the very near future, and this approach is how we’re going to do that.”
Vozar also spoke about how much he valued the company’s relationship with the University, both as an employee and as an alum.
“A lot of the connections that I made in grad school at U of M are now coming back to me at May,” Vozar said. “I may not have thought about this person in years, but they’ve got some company that they’re working with, or they have some candidates for me, or they have some cool new technology that we might want to integrate. So there’s sort of a diaspora into the leadership of big and small companies from Michigan Engineering, and it’s great to be able to use that network.”
Specifically, Vozar believes the benefits of having access to Mcity, the University’s testing facility for automated vehicles in simulated urban and suburban driving environments.
“Resources like Mcity are really crucial for us to do testing in a controlled environment, and to ramp up the testing and ensure our safety systems are functioning and fully vetted,” Vozar said.
Erica Forrest, an engineering sophomore who recently became involved with Mcity, stressed the importance of autonomous vehicle research, and expressed how excited she was to be a part of this ongoing research.
“I think the cause is very important, just because of how frequently car accidents occur, and how dangerous driving can be,” Forrest said. “I'm a mechanical engineer, but I'm also interested in entrepreneurship. But I thought that this course was a great combination of the two. It’s so cool that we have this luxury right at our school, and I think being able to have this opportunity and work with professional companies and be a part of this exciting program is amazing.”