Standing on a street corner in downtown Detroit on a brisk winter afternoon, Kevin Bopp watched in frustration as a large bus pulled to a nearby curb and dropped off its lone passenger.
“That’s one of ours,” he said, wincing toward the bus.
He’s not happy about that fact. Bopp is the vice president of parking at Bedrock, a commercial real-estate firm that owns more than 90 properties in the city, and part of his duties include moving approximately 4000 people each day from their parking spots to their offices. A fleet of 25-seat buses like the one at the curb is part of that operation. But these buses are expensive to run, often unpleasant for riders, and, as the single passenger aboard illustrates, notoriously under capacity.
“That’s not efficient, and not something I want to continue long term,” he said. “I want to manage a network that’s more efficient and curated for what makes sense for our needs throughout the day.”
Bopp and others like him who oversee transportation and logistics networks across business parks, university campuses, and downtown corridors are exploring their options at a time when alternatives are flourishing. Increasingly, those include the prospect of using autonomous micro-size shuttle buses along these sorts of routes. Last fall, Bedrock partnered with May Mobility, a startup based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that uses automated shuttles to provide transportation services, in a closely watched pilot project. The results have left both sides interested in pursuing further collaboration.
“We made people happy and diminished latency,
but the big thing for me is: What’s next?”
– Kevin Bopp, Bedrock
For Bopp, the pilot project showed that employees were receptive to better ways to move between their offices and cars—not to mention to get around a sprawling city not known for an abundance of transportation options. That’s for starters. “We made people happy and diminished latency, but the big thing for me is: What’s next?” he said. “I think there’s an opportunity for us to serve dedicated routes or start new ones. More holistically, there’s an opportunity to change the commute dynamic in this city.”
For May Mobility, the successful completion of the pilot project was arguably more important. Led by veteran employees of the Ford, General Motors, and the Toyota Research Institute, the startup’s Detroit project with Bedrock helped the company examine its business model and attract other potential partners as it looks to start commercial service this year. Right now, May Mobility says, it is negotiating commercial contracts with customers in Texas and Florida.
Others have noticed. Toyota AI Ventures and BMW i Ventures, two mobility-related venture-capital funds run by their namesake automakers, announced investments in May Mobility earlier this week that were part of a funding round totaling $11.5 million for the year-old company. From Toyota’s vantage point, the startup’s business model was as appealing as the underlying autonomous-driving technology.
While there are countless autonomous-related technology startups, “There are not that many companies that have an amazing technical team, automotive business experience, and a releasable product that has commercial traction and a business model that can generate revenue,” said Jim Adler, founder and managing director of Toyota AI Ventures, which was established in July 2017. Among the seven companies the fund has invested in so far, none has a pure, full-stack autonomous system.
Although he has spent his career in robotics, including a turn in the DARPA Urban Challenge, Ed Olson, May Mobility co-founder and now the company’s chief executive officer, is quick to ensure that everyone understands he’s not running an autonomous-vehicle startup; he’s running a transportation service that happens to incorporate autonomous capabilities.
“[The May Mobility] team are very much about,
‘Hey, let’s constrain the problem and execute on it well
rather than go anytime, anywhere.’ ”
– Jim Adler, Toyota AI Ventures
“We’re not trying to sell a product that’s “Whiz-bang, ooh, it’s an autonomous car,” he said. “The fact it’s an autonomous vehicle is a selling point, but at the end of the day, we find our customers are seeing real, quantifiable value in the services that we provide, and we’re able to get into a conversation that makes financial sense.”
May Mobility does more than supply vehicles; it sells an entire service. The company provides its six-seat shuttles, human safety drivers, and ongoing maintenance on the vehicles and the automated diving system as well as fleet management and insurance. If a passenger spills coffee in a shuttle, a May employee will be the one who finds it and cleans the mess. Although he won’t divulge financial specifics, Olson said prospective customers receive one “walk-away price” for the entire package of managed service. Approaching the market with that broader, turnkey type of service is a significant differentiator, he said, between the company and an ever growing field of competitors in the autonomous-microshuttle niche.
Another difference is in the size of the vehicles. Shuttle companies including EasyMile and Navya are entering the market with shuttles that can seat as many as 14 passengers, while May Mobility is starting with a six-person shuttle, which is a Polaris Gem that undergoes a mechanical and electrical overhaul at the company’s Ann Arbor garage (pictured below) before entering service. The all-electric shuttle is outfitted with lidar, radar, and cameras; the precise configuration of the sensor stack can be customized for each client depending on the complexity of the road environment.
In the future, the shuttles might be summoned via an app, like popular ride-hailing services. For now, they run on continuous, defined loops. And they’re picking specific partners, like Bedrock, in specific communities, where they can run one-to-three-mile routes in and around central business districts or medical campuses. The scope of service is broad, but the scope of operations is narrow.
Starting specific and small-scale is an encouraging approach, said Adler.
“With either closed campuses or semi-public-but-known, geofenced routes that they can understand well, they can execute on safety,” he said. “Ed and his team are very much about, “Hey, let’s constrain the problem and execute on it well rather than go anytime, anywhere.’ He’s been around the block enough times to know it’s easier to solve an easier problem, which is often missed with many of the companies in this space.”
Often, that problem starts with parking. For Bopp, providing parking that’s convenient to Bedrock employees—and access to that parking—is important for attracting and retaining the company’s workforce. But constructing garages or lots on higher-value land in a downtown business district, whether in Detroit or any other city, is an expensive proposition and, from an urban-planning perspective, a misuse of valued civic space.
“At the end of the day, when you really get down
to the pain point, it’s parking.”
– Alisyn Malek, May Mobility
Parking problems affect employees in another way. With their cars either in far-off garages or occupying spaces in nearby lots that are often at capacity, they’re often reluctant to surrender spaces to grab lunch or go elsewhere downtown.
“At the end of the day, when you really get to the pain point, it’s parking,” said Alisyn Malek, a co-founder and chief operating officer at May Mobility, who is a former General Motors engineer. “They all have to figure out what to do about parking. And whether that’s first mile/last mile solutions or connecting downtown corridors, that fits perfectly with what we’re able to bring.”
If the shuttles could one day stir unexpected economic activity, they also could bring unexpected social benefits. Surveys that Bopp conducted with Bedrock employees before, during, and after the pilot project showed a 15 to 20 percent improvement in satisfaction with their parking and transportation services.
Because the bus is configured with two front seats facing forward and the rear four seats facing each other, he said, employees anecdotally reported they were less likely to stare at their smartphones and instead engaged in conversations with one another during their rides. That may be because of the seating arrangement or because the wide windows and panoramic roof offer sprawling views of the city that subtly encourage riders to look up and enjoy the ride.
For Bopp at Bedrock and for the May Mobility executives, unearthing these potential social benefits was a surprise during the pilot project and an aspect to the shuttles they’re just beginning to understand. But it’s clear they’re providing an experience that avoids the soullessness of big buses.
“It’s encouraging people who would have sat silently on opposite sides of a bus staring forward to be more social, and there’s a lot buried in that,” Olson said. “Rider happiness is a serious issue, and if you get on a big bus, you almost become cargo. It’s like joining a monastery. Your job is to sit down and not disturb the people and wait until the bus driver decides it’s time to leave. The experience we can create in our vehicles is very different.”