AV Powers Bring May Flowers

Michigan-based May Mobility survived rocky roads thanks to faith in its founders’ vision and the company’s autonomous tech.

May CEO and co-founder Edwin Olson previously was lead investigator on Ford’s driverless car program and co-directed autonomous driving projects at the Toyota Research Institute. Before joining May, he was also associate professor of computer science at the University of Michigan.

May Mobility is the professional boxer of the autonomous-vehicle tech space. It hit the ring in 2017 as an ambitious welterweight, full of capability, veteran AV leadership and a hint of swagger. Investor muscle came from the venture-capital arms of BMW and Toyota, and other VCs. Its initial foray onto the mat, while not scoring knockouts, was promising. May successfully demonstrated its self-driving, low-speed electric shuttles in three states and appeared on track to realize its founders’ vision: to supplement and replace traditional urban public transit with fleets of responsive, flexible and profit-generating AVs.

“It sounds corny, but the mission of the company is to transform cities,” Edwin Olson, May’s CEO and one of its three founders, told SAE Media. “Our vision is to make cities better places, with more green space and fewer parking lots, which are my personal pet peeve.”

As a rookie, May quickly built key relationships with city and state planners and the transit community while its engineers moved hardware and software developments forward. Optimism abounded while Aurora, Cruise Automation, Waymo and Zoox engaged in a higher-profile race to prove the commercial-AV business case. At the same time, however, the pressure to deliver was pummeling dozens of mobility startups. The heat of the ring proved tougher than Olson and the May team were prepared for in the early going. Some of the geofenced city routes lacked riders. The shuttle’s autonomous operation was inconsistent. The arduous urban duty cycle quickly overtaxed the Polaris GEM electric vehicles used by May. Two of Olson’s co-founders and another top executive left the company.

“For engineers, it was a rocky time,” confided a technical insider who requested anonymity. “It’s not exaggerating to say most of us had our feelers out. Some left. But many of us never lost faith in Ed; he’s a true believer in the inherent power of May Mobility to succeed.”

Not tired of Bridgestone

May Mobility is expanding its autonomous fleet of Toyota Sienna Autono-MaaS vehicles currently under test in Ann Arbor.

Olson’s guiding light and the capital markets’ faith in May’s keystone technology, the Multi-Policy Decision Making (MPDM) software stack and related IP that is the autonomy “brain,” have helped put May Mobility solidly on the comeback trail. Late last year, it notched its 300,000th rider, a milestone in the AV industry and a rich stream of customer-use data, Olson claimed. The company currently operates routes in nine cities in five U.S. states, plus one route recently added in Japan. Investors noticed: In January 2022, May Mobility announced initial closing of its Series C round of funding with an investment of $83 million, enabling Olson to expand the technical staff. Then in March, Bridgestone announced that it is taking a minority investment in May — the tire giant’s first stake in public-serving AVs. The deal brings significant opportunities, including Bridgestone service support for May’s AV fleet through its 2,200-store network. Additionally, May Mobility will leverage Bridgestone predictive algorithm technology for fleet maintenance and route planning.

Meantime, vehicle-level collaboration with Toyota has increased, as May expands its fleet of AV-kitted Sienna minivans being tested on Michigan public roads. The Sienna base platform, extensively reconfigured with Toyota’s Vehicle Control Interface (VCI) plus May’s camera/lidar/radar sensor suite and software, will be added to May’s public shuttle operations in 2022, Olson noted. The VCI allows the Sienna Autono-MaaS (S-AM) prototype to interface with third-party autonomous driving systems, including those from Aurora. The Sienna heralds an AV that Toyota plans to deploy in late 2024.

May senior program manager Heather Konet is involved with the company’s “autonomous kit” and development of the Sienna AV’s interior environment.

“One of the great things about Toyota as a partner is they’re already talking about things they can incorporate at the OEM level, into the Sienna platform, that can provide benefits for the May service,” Olson said. “We represent a ‘living laboratory’ in a way that no other AV company can be. By our math, our 300,000 rides to date are more than half of the revenue-producing autonomous rides across the entire industry. There’s an opportunity for us to get that data and figure out what changes we need to make a May Sienna different from a personally owned Sienna, and how do we share that with Toyota. Ours is a mutually beneficial relationship.” Those dynamics helped lure senior program manager Heather Konet from a job at Nissan to May Mobility in 2021. “The technology is out there now, serving people. It’s not just a dream or a roadmap,” Konet asserted. She is excited about various customer- and operator-focused technologies under discussion for future deployment by May, including new approaches to occupant monitoring (i.e., smoke, health issues, rider disruptions) and vehicle-to-rider communication via enhanced HMI.

Closer to ‘AVO-free’ operations

Technology in the AV space is changing rapidly, much of it on the critical path. It’s a challenge for the engineering and design teams, Olson admitted. “We’re constantly reevaluating our bill of material and what sensors make economic sense to use,” he explained. “There are sensor configurations we could put on the vehicle that would immediately expand the number of roads we could operate on. But increasing the ODD [operational design domain] might double the BOM price, and then you don’t have a business anymore. For now, the 905-nm lidar is the way to go, for example. But do we like the FMCW 1500-nanometer? Absolutely. But we’ll give ‘em time for the price to come down. We’re very pragmatic about what’s going to make the thing work.”

The May shuttles currently in transit use operate with a “safety” driver/monitor, known as the AVO, on board. Olson promises the first “AVO-free” operation in 2023. “We’re getting close, and three things have to come together. First is the level of software readiness, and we’re getting close to that level for some ODDs,” he noted. “Over time, the ODD range in which we’re comfortable will grow and grow. Our philosophy is to find an ODD in which we can ‘stick the landing,’ and then we’ll grow from there. But that first step’s a doozie.”

The second enabler is the hardware. “You can’t just take any car, add some motors to it, hijack the CAN bus and turn it into an autonomous vehicle. You’d end up with one that always will require a safety driver because it won’t have the redundancy required for safe operation,” he said. The Sienna prototypes used by May are purpose-built with the redundant braking, steering motors and ASIL-grade interface “needed to build a successful, scalable, autonomous-vehicle company that can take the safety driver out.”

The third factor is regulatory. May’s advantage here is its broad and deep relations with cities since 2017. “Often, they invite us in and make introductions to the legislators and governors and help us figure out the curb space,” Olson noted. “In the micro-mobility space, cities have power. If you screw up and you aren’t respecting curb space, or obstructing traffic, or you aren’t providing equitable access to transportation and only operating in affluent areas, and you don’t have a wheelchair-accessible option, cities can push back. And that has derailed many transit startups.”