For someone who built robots throughout undergrad, it never occurred to May Mobility CEO Edwin Olson that he could make a career out of robotics. After two false starts as a graduate student however, Olson took to the field, finding himself out on a boat in the Mediterranean helping with an autonomous submarine and then in the California desert working on MIT’s autonomous car for the DARPA Urban Challenge.
“On the DARPA Urban Challenge competition day, we hit the ‘go’ button and the car drove off into the distance, first disappearing around a corner, then its audible beeper fading away. Six nervous hours had passed when I heard the faintest whisper of our car’s beeper, growing louder and louder. It was an amazing feeling to hear the sound of that beeper that signaled our car had completed its mission and was almost home. I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.”
Edwin Olson graduated with his PhD from MIT in 2008 and joined the faculty at the University of Michigan to continue his work on autonomous vehicles. While at the University of Michigan, he led the winning team in the 2010 Mobile Autonomous Ground-robotic International Competition (MAGIC) by developing a team of 14 robots that semi-autonomously explored and mapped a large-scale urban environment.
He also worked with Ford on their autonomous vehicles before joining Toyota Research Institute as a co-director of autonomous driving.
While there were a number of research opportunities in robotics, the culmination of years spent in research left Edwin driven to develop autonomous technologies so they could solve real world problems.
“I’ve always been less interested in proofs of concept and more interested in solving real-world problems,” shared Edwin. “I looked around and saw all these problem domains where robots were a solution to real problems that are important to society, and that’s what led to May Mobility. How do we take the technology that we have into the world and actually generate impact and improve people’s lives with it?”
Bringing Technology with Impact to May Mobility
With transportation inequity a noted and growing issue in the United States, Edwin co-founded May Mobility in 2017, focused on developing autonomous solutions that would have an immediate impact on solving the issue in heavily affected cities.
“Technology without impact is pointless,” said Edwin. “Yes, it’s interesting to make and operate a driverless vehicle. But what’s even more interesting is to use that technology to provide a service that reduces congestion, makes better use of space and over time, can change the way we live in cities with green spaces and affordable housing in place of traffic jams and parking lots.”
That clarity of mission has allowed May to focus on the transportation solutions needed today rather than trying to predict what might be possible years or decades down the road. It keeps the company driven to innovate solutions that will help people get to and from school, to the grocery store, to doctors appointments and jobs.
In order to have the most immediate impact, May prioritizes communities with the greatest transportation inequities and focuses on first and last mile routes. By collaborating with community and corporate partners, May creates autonomous solutions unique to each market.
“Very poor equity exists in transportation, and it’s not for lack of trying on the community or city level,” said Edwin. “Many communities don’t have the tools they need to provide equitable and accessible transportation. That’s where May Mobility comes in – we bring new tools to the table that help them deliver transportation solutions that transform people’s lives.”
From Transactions to Transformations
After four years and more than 275,000 revenue-generating rides, what gets Edwin the most excited is hearing how May’s technologies have translated into real world changes for its riders. And despite leading a team of 200 May employees in 7 cities around the world, he remains active in solving problems and identifying mobility solutions that help transform cities.
“When you hear these stories about two-plus hour commutes being replaced with more work, more time with family or simply more time to rest, you realize we’re doing so much more than simply moving people to jobs, medical care or grocery stores. We’re expanding access to more and better opportunities that improve the daily lives, health, financial security and ultimately happiness of our riders,” said Edwin. “That’s the kind of impact that I get really excited about: hearing how what we are doing translates into better lives for everyday people.”