Skip to Content
Alumni profile

Edwin Olson ’00, MEng ’01, PhD ’08

Self-driving shuttles are changing city commutes
June 16, 2020
Olson
Courtesy Photo

In early 2020, a fleet of low-speed autonomous electric vehicles began transporting commuters between their workplaces in downtown Detroit and a parking lot half a mile away. Similar fleets are in place to shuttle workers, commuters, and residents through urban neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Providence, Rhode Island. 

“There are lots of companies working in the autonomous--vehicle space,” says Edwin Olson ’00, MEng ’01, PhD ’08, founder of May Mobility, the Michigan-based startup that operates the fleets (which, at press time, had been temporarily suspended to comply with covid-19 social distancing guidelines). “But I think we’re the only one of those companies dedicated to showing a real path to profitability.”

Born in Bloomington, Minnesota, Olson caught the autonomous-car bug as a grad student when he joined an MIT team for the 2007 edition of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge for driverless vehicles. After earning his PhD, Olson joined the computer science faculty at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He has participated in autonomous-vehicle programs at Ford and Toyota.

Olson founded May Mobility in January 2017. The company operates 25 autonomous shuttles in three US cities. Its eco-friendly vans accommodate five passengers plus an attendant. To date, May Mobility has logged over 250,000 revenue-generating rides (municipalities and business associations pay for the service; the rides are free to patrons). In addition to providing “last mile” service, Olson believes, this type of transport could help transform urban neighborhoods, replacing noisy, car-choked streets with quiet pedestrian zones serviced by autonomous “clean” vehicles. 

Part of what sets May Mobility apart is its technology: in place of rules-based intelligence, the company developed a decision-making system that peers 15 seconds into the future and evaluates up to 2,000 potential outcomes in a single second. “This enables our vehicles to make an informed choice whether to pass another car or brake,” Olson explains. 

“I’ve always been less interested in proofs of concept than in solving real-world problems,” he says. “It’s the ethos we live at MIT. 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.” 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

The viral AI avatar app Lensa undressed me—without my consent

My avatars were cartoonishly pornified, while my male colleagues got to be astronauts, explorers, and inventors.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.