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February 26, 2018 11:45 AM, EST

BMW, Toyota Back a Driverless Startup That Wants to Start Small

As automakers spend billions to rack up autonomous miles and map city streets, Toyota Motor Corp. and BMW AG are also betting on a startup with a more modest approach.

The corporate venture arms of the two carmakers led an $11.5 million seed investment round for May Mobility, a micro-transit company that deploys self-driving electric shuttles short distances. By running one-kilometer routes on repeat, the shuttles are gathering critical information in the path toward full autonomy.

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“Something we can give them access to is that early rider-experience data that we’re collecting,” said CEO Ed Olson. “We can make sure we’ve got the acceptance factors for autonomous vehicles right.”

University of Michigan

With truly self-driving vehicles still years away, more startups are trying to take smaller bites out of the engineering challenges of going driverless — and hopefully make money along the way.

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based May Mobility’s main customers are property developers who want to transport people from parking lots quicker and cheaper, plus municipal planners looking to replace underutilized bus routes, Olson said. That real-life experience has strategic value for automakers’ own driverless research.

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May Mobility, which was founded last year and charges a monthly fee for its shuttle service, plans to use the seed money to expand in Texas and Florida — states that don’t require a safety driver, said Olson, who’s also a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan. The company will hire technicians to service and clean the shuttles, as well as supervise the routes.

“We think this strategy will get us to that Level 5 vision before the other ones,” Olson said, using an industry term for full autonomy. “We’re going to be able to go through the cycle incredibly quickly and unlock a lot of city coverage faster than people who are trying to do it all out of the gates.”