The shuttle slips down a bus lane and stops at a corner to look for passengers. It’s a fixed route that covers a little less than a mile in Detroit, ferrying passengers from cheap parking near Greektown, a small entertainment district, to the crowded headquarters of Quicken Loans and other towers that employ some 18,000 people.
May’s shuttle tops out at 25 mph. The toaster-shaped cruiser isn’t sexy, and the ride is about as exhilarating as a merry-go-round at the county fair. But it’s bringing in revenue from the public (it charges for services in Detroit but declines to say how much; it makes $800,000 a year in Providence, R.I., where it runs a similar service), which deep-pocketed giants such as General Motors’ Cruise and Argo AI, which is backed by Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen, have yet to do with autonomous vehicles. Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, considered by many to be the technology leader, does charge riders but limits that group to 1,500 selected patrons.
Although those well-funded players aim for superhuman levels of driving, start-ups like May are tailoring their ambitions to what autonomous technology can safely do today.
The difference between what May is doing versus the moonshot being attempted by the better-funded carmakers underscores the real state of autonomous driving. As recently as a year ago, the popular imagination and investor dreams saw self-driving vehicles replacing Uber drivers and car ownership in the not-so-distant future. Then Cruise and Waymo both delayed true driverless services to the public, and the buttons for autonomy were reset.
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