Self-driving shuttles to be tested in downtown Detroit

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

An Ann Arbor-based company will begin testing two self-driving shuttles in downtown Detroit in October.

Start-up company May Mobility will begin a five-day test program Oct. 9.

The announcement of the test program came Wednesday from Quicken Loans founder and downtown developer Dan Gilbert.

“We have a couple vehicles that are supposed to be ready to go around a path,” Gilbert said at a mobility technology conference at Cobo Center. “We have shuttles that shuttle people around downtown for parking and back and everywhere else. So we’re going to give it a shot and see what happens.”

The self-driving shuttles will be offered as an alternative to transport Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures employees to parking lots in the central business district, said Tom Goulding, spokesman for Rock Ventures. The shuttles will take a path in an area east of Woodward that will include Monroe, Beaubien and East Congress. The shuttles will run 7-10 p.m. Oct. 9- 13 for a total of 15 hours of testing, Goulding said.

The shuttles will be the first testing of commercial autonomous vehicles in downtown Detroit, according to Mark De la Vergne, chief of mobility innovation for the City of Detroit. Some some automakers and automotive suppliers have tested cars in the city, but they have not transported members of the public.

“This pilot that Bedrock will deploy represents an important first step toward integrating autonomous technology into Detroit’s streets,” De la Vergne said. “The city will be working closely with their team to ensure a safe pilot and to study the results.”

May Mobility, founded in January, offers autonomous driving technology for commercial fleet vehicles. For the pilot program, the company will provide two six-passenger vehicles, said CEO Edwin Olson.

“Everybody gets their own door, their own seat,” he said. “It’s a really comfortable vehicle.”

Olson said the company has driven routes in downtown Detroit for several months to gather data. Olson notes that while his company may be a start-up, his team has been working in the robotics field for nearly a decade.

During the testing, a safety driver will be on board, but not operating the vehicle, Olson said. The casual onlooker may not notice the difference. Drivers will have the ability to override the vehicle if they need to.

“A pilot rep will be on board making sure everyone is comfortable with the ride,” Olson said. “In the long term we expect to be able to operate without a safety driver.”

Olsen said May Mobility gets the vehicles from Minnesota-based Polaris. He said they then “substantially modify them to operate autonomously.”

Although the test vehicles can carry six passengers, the self-driving system can be adapted to larger commercial vehicles, he said.

“The technology we build is broadly applicable to any motor vehicle,” he said. “It’s our first product and won’t be our only product.”

The May Mobility shuttles are not the only self-driving shuttles operating in Southeast Michigan.

French company Navya is testing its self-driving Arma shuttles on the University of Michigan’s North Campus. Students can ride those 15-passenger shuttles in a limited area. Navya is opening a manufacturing facility in nearby Saline.

Twitter: CWilliams_DN

Staff Writer Ian Thibodeau contributed.