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AV myth buster: It’s science fiction

Autonomous vehicles are surrounded by myth and conjecture. We’re here to set the story straight in this series of myth busters. Learn about the race to develop autonomous vehicles and how May Mobility is changing the game.

Artificial intelligence. It’s hard not to talk about it like it’s the future, even with all the hype around ChatGPT and Dall-E. This is especially true when people talk about autonomous vehicles (AVs). Chances are, you’ve never seen an AV in real life. You may not even know someone who’s seen one. They still seem like something that belongs in science fiction literature, a part of the far future, but that’s where we find our myth. Because autonomous vehicles aren’t just navigating city streets right now; they have actually been in the making for more than 20 years.

The Grand Challenge

In 2002, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would announce the first-ever autonomous vehicle race. Looking to leading robotics engineers across the country to bring fact from fiction, DARPA offered $1 million to the group that could successfully finish its 132-mile desert obstacle course first. And so the Grand Challenge began.

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

On Saturday, March 13, 2004, at 6:30 a.m., 15 teams and their vehicles met at the starting line. Less than three hours later, not a single vehicle had passed the finish line. For that matter, the most accomplished AV only made it 7.4 miles before the terrain became too difficult to navigate effectively. In the midst of this loss, one thing was certain, though: Autonomous vehicles were possible and some of the brightest minds in the U.S. weren’t about to give up on them. A year and a half later, five teams would successfully develop vehicles that could autonomously navigate the Grand Challenge. But finishing the race was just the beginning. The next step was to conquer city streets and so give people a new method of transportation that they could rely on.

The road to autonomy

Now, almost two decades later, you can find a variety of autonomous vehicles navigating urban roads and serving a variety of purposes. As private companies (instead of government and scholastic entities) began to lead efforts in AV development, innovation sped up and the robotaxi was born. In certain markets, you can hail a rideshare autonomous vehicle with the use of an app and without having to wait for a driver to accept your request. And AV coverage is expanding rapidly into additional locations and markets across the globe. Autonomous vehicle technology also opens the door to other exciting applications, including long-haul trucking, mining, agriculture, and industrial use cases. But we at May Mobility are most excited about the opportunity to use autonomous vehicles as a microtransit service, an updated form of shared, on-demand public transportation that uses an app to book rides in selected service zones.

Our CEO and co-founder Edwin Olson worked on a variety of approaches to AV technology over the last 20 years. Coming out of autonomous robotics programs at MIT, Ford, Toyota and the University of Michigan, Olson founded May Mobility because he saw a problem that autonomous vehicles could solve: transportation inequity. Since 2017, when we first launched our AVs, we have partnered with cities, businesses and transit agencies to fill transit gaps with our autonomous vehicles. Our microtransit solution makes it easier to focus on the needs of specific areas and, by doing so, helps underserved communities find safe, accessible and reliable transportation. Anyone can ride our affordable, on-demand service by downloading our app or making a call. And when we say anyone, we mean it. We also provide wheelchair-accessible AVs at each site, serving an often-overlooked population when it comes to transportation.

While not commonplace yet, autonomous vehicles are here and the technology is only getting better. Over the last six years, our AVs have been deployed in 11 communities across two countries and given more than 335,000 rides in urban, suburban and rural settings. We are excited about the impact our vehicles have on quality of life across the globe and hope we can improve mobility in your community too. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help address specific transportation issues within your community, reach out and let’s schedule a time to chat.

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