Authors note: The following post is my response to the Ars Technica article “Self-driving startups are becoming an endangered species.” The Ars article observes, correctly, that quite a few AV companies have failed or been acquired over the last few years. But I think there’s a key underlying factor that explains what we’re seeing — and it’s a basic economic truth that applies to small and big AV companies alike.

May Mobility launched our newest autonomous vehicles in Arlington, TX as part of an on-demand service. The service is open to the general public — anyone can request a ride using the Via app.

Companies that don’t make money eventually run out of it.

The most important race in the AV space is the race to a scalable and sustainable business model. Who can…


Michigan Connected Corridor Project’s Phase 1 includes a route from Ann Arbor, home of May Mobility, to the city of Detroit. Image credit: Cavnue.

Our vision at May Mobility is to transform cities through autonomous driving. We mean that literally — that cities will start to physically change as transportation systems enabled by autonomy become available. Unnecessary road lanes will become bicycle and pedestrian paths, and parking structures will be replaced by green space, affordable housing, retail, and schools.

Last week, Michigan took a huge step forward in transforming cities through autonomous driving when it announced a first-of-its-kind dedicated roadway for autonomous vehicles, connecting May Mobility’s home town of Ann Arbor to the city of Detroit. …


Will you pay more for a self-driving feature on your next car? Not likely — 78% of Americans say they wouldn’t pay more than $2,000 for a self-driving car feature. When added to today’s vehicles, self-driving technology doesn’t make commutes shorter and doesn’t make parking easier. But self-driving technology will enable a whole new class of transportation services that can transform the way we build and get around cities.

Suppose you’re at a car dealership in a few years’ time. The salesperson is pitching a self-driving upgrade option. “Hmm,” you think: it’s an expensive upgrade; it’ll only work sometimes; my car is still a “car” (and not a mobile office or movie theater), and I’ll still have to endure traffic delays and search for parking.

You may even contemplate that you, with your single-occupancy vehicle, would be contributing to the problem of city congestion, and while you may be able to pay the $10+ congestion fee to go south of 60th street in NYC, that same fee decreases access…


As the CEO of a self-driving car company, I’m constantly asked how long it will be until robo-taxis can take people pretty much anywhere, pretty much any time. We hear wildly different estimates from marketers (“Company X will solve robo-taxis in 2019!”) and from engineers (“ugh, it’s hard”), so who do we listen to?

For this post, let’s measure the performance of a system in terms of the number of miles per disengagement. A disengagement, roughly speaking, is when the technology fails and a safety driver must take over. …


The movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High brilliantly captures the angst, awkwardness, and uncertainty of the teenage years. Growing up is not a phenomenon unique to people — industries do too, and the autonomous vehicle industry is about 15 years old (counting from the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge¹), and it’s as uncertain about how to grow up as any high schooler.

The teenage years are hard for humans — and, as it turns out — the autonomous vehicle industry. The AV industry has both cool kids (often idolized with enormous valuations) but also a new crop of younger companies finding their own path.

Identity crisis is at the heart of any teenage movie: who am I and what should I do with my life? Most AV companies have focused on becoming robo-taxis — vehicles that can operate within large swathes of urban…


A favorite debate around self-driving vehicles is the “trolley problem”: a self-driving vehicle finds itself in a pickle and must choose between two terrible outcomes (see this Washington Post Article). For example: should a self-driving car crash into a school bus in front of it, or should it drive up a curb and take out a group of senior citizens sitting on a park bench?

The trolley problem is an attractive philosophical exercise because the question is neatly formulated — it’s a simple A versus B choice. …


I came across an old photo of me during the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, when I worked with my MIT colleagues to develop a self-driving vehicle. Having just heard of an unexpected feature on the course, we were concerned that our car might screw up. So with minutes before launching our vehicle into the competition, I pulled out my laptop, made a few changes to the source code, compiled, and — with no time for testing — pushed it to the car. …


A common sentiment in self-driving car companies is to build vehicles that “do not cause” accidents. Clearly, we can’t fault a self-driving car if some other moron crashes into it.

Not so fast. Of course there are cases where one car truly is a victim of the dangerous driving of another. But other times, a mishap is the end result of a “minor hazard” created by another driver. Consider a car that brakes suddenly, creating a minor hazard for the car behind them (who now has a greater chance of rear-ending the first car). …


Blockchain, or more broadly speaking, the idea of a decentralized ledger of transactions whose authenticity and authority are established by a community of users, is pretty darn appealing. Cutting out unnecessary middlemen seems like a big win, particularly if those middlemen are corrupt, incompetent, or simply have goals that are in conflict with the users themselves. Decentralized ledgers appeal to our basic sense of fairness and democracy, where the “little guys” have power and autonomy.

The problem is that blockchains don’t achieve these goals, and the root cause is a fundamental “goldilocks” dilemma:

  • It must be attractive for a user…

Ask any rocket scientist: The best way to get a spacecraft to Pluto is not to point your rocket at Pluto and light off the engine. No, you should instead point your rocket at Jupiter, where you can achieve an extra gravitational boost. That boost will give you velocity that your rocket could not achieve otherwise, and you’ll reach Pluto before any rocket sent directly towards it.

In the self-driving vehicle world, Pluto is the equivalent to “robo-taxis in large cities.” This is the market to which virtually every self-driving company aspires. …

Edwin Olson

CEO of May Mobility, Professor of Computer Science at University of Michigan

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