Self-Driving Shuttle Service Debuts in Downtown Detroit

Autonomous electric shuttles will begin moving workers around a one-mile loop in downtown Detroit this week, bringing what may be the next generation of urban mobility to the heart of the US auto industry.

The six-person buses will only serve the roughly 18,000 employees of Detroit-based Quicken Loans and its family of companies, but this is a commercial launch on public streets. As such, it’s a first for an urban core in the US, according to Bedrock, the real estate company that is partnering with Michigan startup May Mobility to provide the free shuttles.

The vision of these two companies is to significantly increase the service across the central business district in the future, and May is pitching similar services to other cities.

While much of the excitement and worry about autonomous vehicles has focused on private cars or ride-hailing services, shuttles performing the less glamorous work of moving passengers along pre-screened streets may be a big part of the technology’s near future. Dedicated services like these don’t have to deal with daunting challenges such as navigating unfamiliar streets.

Las Vegas began a year-long pilot program last year with self-driving shuttles from startup Navya, along with AAA and Keolis, a transportation system operator. (Shortly after it launched, one of the shuttles got in a fender-bender with a delivery truck, which the city said was the truck driver’s fault.)

In another high-profile project, Apple reportedly is working with Volkswagen to turn vans into autonomous shuttles for Apple employees.

The Detroit shuttles are doing real work now, but the service is still at an early stage.

Each shuttle has an attendant on board to help make passengers comfortable with the experience and to stop or steer the vehicle if necessary. The shuttles also need to be driven out of the garage where they’re stored, because they have tight parking spaces, Alisyn Malek, May’s co-founder and chief operating officer, told The Connected Car.

But self-driving technology changes the economics of the shuttle service by replacing a single 30-passenger bus with three smaller vehicles that can run the route more often, she said: Paying three drivers wouldn’t be economical. Three buses means riders have shorter waits.

May Mobility carefully prepares both the shuttles and the streets for its service. The company studies how drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and others use the streets where it wants to operate shuttles.

It even installs cameras at intersections to monitor the traffic lights and report their status to the shuttles. This is a backup for the cameras on the shuttles themselves, because it’s still hard for most onboard cameras to reliably gauge whether lights are red, yellow or green, particularly in tricky lighting situations such as dusk and dawn, Malek said.

Rather than set out predetermined routes, May evaluates streets and approves them for use by the shuttles, which can then operate on any route on those streets.

The shuttles are set to a top speed of 25mph, which allows them to move naturally with traffic in the downtown area. That helps riders get comfortable with the technology, Malek said. In a pilot program in October, 20 out of 220 passengers were hesitant to take the shuttle, she said. After attendants explained the system, all tried the shuttle and felt comfortable with it after riding, Malek said.

May plans to work with developers and municipal governments to determine their transportation needs and set up the right services for each area, she said. The company plans to expand its suite of vehicles and services, including on-demand services, next year.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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