Autonomous vehicle company May Mobility has launched its first driverless on-demand microtransit service on public roads in Sun City, Arizona in partnership with transit tech company Via. The milestone is in line with May Mobility’s goal of launching rider-only operations by 2023. It also signals that the gentle onramp approach to commercializing autonomy could be working for the startup.
Sun City is a planned community for “active, retired adults.” Launching a driverless microtransit service in such an environment isn’t as flashy as putting robotaxis on the streets of San Francisco or doing autonomous pickups and dropoffs at airport in Phoenix. But it has allowed the company to expand steadily and avoid getting into trouble.
May’s strategy of integrating its autonomous microtransit service into existing public transit, in partnership with cities, has also laid the groundwork for future, more challenging deployments. Carlos Cruz-Casas, chief innovation officer at Miami-Dade County’s Department of Public Works, told TechCrunch that May Mobility will be launching an on-demand shuttle service in Miami, also in partnership with Via. Neither May Mobility nor Via responded in time to TechCrunch to confirm.
Recall that competitor Cruise had begun testing driverless robotaxis in Miami for a mere day before pulling its entire fleet after an October incident that saw a pedestrian hit and dragged by one of the GM-backed company’s vehicles. Cruise has since had its permits to operate in California suspended and last week laid off 900 employees and a handful of executives.
By keeping its head down and doing small-scale deployments, May has so far managed to expand without drama. The startup has been operating shuttles within campuses and to designated stops along fixed routes in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Arlington, Texas. More recently, May launched an on-demand service in Grand Rapids, Michigan in partnership with Via. Customers in Grand Rapids can hail one of May’s Toyota Sienna Autono-MaaS AVs from within a designated geofenced area.
Steve Miller, a risk management consultant specializing in autonomous vehicles at the Insurance Office of America, told TechCrunch he expects to see more controlled, low-speed shuttles and on-demand services like those offered by May and competitor Beep. Beep operates autonomous shuttles for resident transportation in the Lake Nona community in Florida and for public transportation in Peachtree Corners, Georgia. Beep also shuttles guests in Disney’s Celebration and Wilderness Lodge resorts.
“What we’re seeing now as we talk about commercial deployment is the industry is really focused on trucking or shuttling, like a Beep or May Mobility-type shuttle,” said Miller, noting that developing Level 2 advanced driver assistance software for OEMs is also trending with AV startups. “And the reason that those two are leading the charge is they both have the benefit of being in defined operating domains. They’re in controlled environments. What makes robotaxis difficult is there are any number of edge cases that can’t at this point be modeled.”
For its part, May says its Multi-Policy Decision Making system is well-equipped to handle edge cases. The system “runs real-time, on-board simulations to analyze thousands of possible scenarios every second, choosing the safest one to execute,” according to the company.
Miller says the fundraising environment today also incentivizes companies to focus on sustainability around the core business, rather than going for moonshot goals. In November, May raised a $105 million round, bringing its total funding up to $300 million.
“I do think you’re going to see more of the shuttle-type operations just because there’s an endless number of cities and municipalities in the U.S., and there’s a lot of grant money that comes along with transportation,” said Miller. “So I think you’re gonna see interest from cities, airports, transit hubs — there are so many opportunties for plugging into mass transit, and I think that’s gonna be pretty lucrative.”
Sun City driverless launch
May Mobility’s first rider-only service in Sun City will give a “select group of early riders” the opportunity to request a pickup in one of the company’s Autono-MaaS minivans from a variety of stops, according to the company.
The free service will initially operate on public roads Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. A spokesperson for the company said expansion will be imminent, but it will depend on May’s careful and considerate approach to safety, rider feedback and community trust.
Riders can book the on-demand ride-hail service through May Mobility’s app, available in Google Play and the Apple App Store. Residents who are interested in becoming an early rider can apply online.