Self-driving shuttles get first public test in Detroit

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Detroit — Two self-driving electric shuttles ferried people on a cool October night to a downtown parking garage within blocks of the nation’s largest automaker’s world headquarters.

The shuttles developed by May Mobility were the first commercial autonomous shuttles to carry passengers in the city, and the Detroit Three had nothing to do with them. The former Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. employees working for the Ann Arbor-based start-up are slightly smug about that. Those two Michigan auto giants continue to develop autonomous vehicles behind locked gates, giving the public brief glimpses of future products expected to dramatically change transportation.

“The sooner we get people in the car, the faster we’re going to learn,” said Edwin Olson, CEO of May Mobility.

The tests also give one of the city’s biggest investors a chance to push public transportation at his own pace.

Olson partnered with Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock real estate to run May Mobility’s first self-driving tests with passengers on a city street. The vehicles — Polaris Gem E6 shuttles outfitted with May Mobility’s suite of sensors and software — are being tested from 8-10 p.m. for five nights ending Friday. They follow a loop just under a mile long in a part of Detroit’s central business district that doesn’t see a lot of traffic.

There were fewer cars to share the road with at night, and the vehicle’s lidar (light detection and ranging) sensors — which pulse beams of infrared light to detect distances much like bats use sonar — work better after dark. The team laid out a route that kept the vehicle to right turns, which are easier to execute.

Olson’s team also thought there would be fewer pedestrians to deal with at night. But on one trip, two jaywalkers stepped in front of the vehicle at a stop sign. The shuttle waited for both men to clear before proceeding through the intersection just like any other car. The engineer sitting in the driver’s seat only once pressed a button at the beginning of the route to start the trip. He never touched the steering wheel, the brake pedal or the accelerator.

Jasmine Flemister, who works in the First National Building and parks in the Bricktown Garage at Beaubien and Congress, watched the city roll by through the panoramic sunroof as the shuttle sped quietly along.

“I actually didn’t feel I was unsafe,” she said. “I wasn’t wondering if the light changes is it gonna stop.”

The vehicles communicate with cameras fixed high on light poles that read traffic lights at intersections the shuttle needed to cross. The lidar system also uses a 3-D map of the route to judge distances from buildings. The shuttle stopped smoothly, accelerated gently — and when an oncoming car veered into its lane or a cab driver threw his door open, the vehicle slammed on the brakes.

“Actually getting from A to B is just the beginning,” said Steve Vozar, May Mobility’s chief technology officer, said from the back seat of the shuttle after someone crossed in front.

He and Olson have tested their machines in a number of scenarios — some of those at the MCity complex in Ann Arbor where Ford and other carmakers and suppliers test their technology. The May Mobility team said getting their vehicles on a real urban street is invaluable.

The team plans to manage fleets of their vehicles for other companies. Olson, Vozar and Alisyn Malek, chief operating officer, said the partnership with Bedrock will give them five nights worth of new data to sift through and hone their machines.

There’s another aspect to the tests for Gilbert’s team.

Kevin Bopp, Bedrock vice president of parking operations, said the shuttles give Bedrock a chance to figure out a better way to transport the thousands of people who park several blocks from their offices. It’s also a chance for the Motor City to have a tangible role in the development of technology expected to fundamentally change the way people move, and for Bedrock to lead a change in Detroit’s transportation.

It gets people excited, too.

“This is what I want,” said Scott Schommer, a Quicken Loans employee who rode the robotic shuttle on no less than four loops Tuesday night. “It’s safe. I don’t ever want my kids to learn how to drive.”

Gilbert’s companies could use autonomous shuttles for more than getting handfuls of tenants and employees to their cars at the end of the day. The Detroit real estate mogul has a hand in developing potential downtown tourism spots in the Shinola Hotel and future Hudson’s site development that are expected to open in the next several years.

People visiting the city might want to take guided tours, Bopp said. A May Mobility shuttle could self-drive small groups through downtown. The vehicles could also be deployed in under served neighborhoods in longer distance scenarios.

A partnership between Gilbert’s companies and May Mobility could be a game-changer.

“This gets the city at the cutting edge,” Bopp said. “What’s kept Detroit from being a world-class city has really been a lack of public transit.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau