May Mobility is deploying self-driving vehicles now, starting in Detroit

The resurgent city of Detroit, which lost 64 percent of its population between 1950 and 2017, is experiencing something it hasn’t seen in decades: urban congestion.

With little public transportation, virtually everyone in the Motor City drives to work, creating traffic and parking challenges, especially downtown.

No one knows this better than Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, the catalyst behind Detroit’s comeback, whose property management firm Bedrock has to hire a fleet of three dozen private shuttle buses to deliver employees to its many downtown office buildings from distant parking facilities up to three miles away.

The buses create their own problems, though, clogging already congested streets 18 hours a day and spewing diesel exhaust while idling curbside during slow times. At rush hour or lunchtime, these 25- or 44-passenger rigs are packed. But much of the day they’re circling with just a couple of lonely riders.

Solving the “last mile” problem is a transportation dilemma that even cities with vast public transit networks are grappling with amid shifting demographics and increased urbanization. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft were supposed to help, but all they’ve done is add to the gridlock.

Autonomous robo-taxis are the next frontier, but a handful of high-profile accidents involving test vehicles are a reminder that the technology still needs more work before self-driving cars are widely deployed.

May Mobility, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based startup, has identified a niche to put autonomous vehicles on the road today, without waiting for mass-market deployment. Its micro-transit service uses six-passenger electric vehicles that steer themselves through traffic on a carefully mapped, closed loop.

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