Via today announced a partnership with troubled autonomous vehicle startup May Mobility to develop a platform that integrates on-demand shared rides, public transportation, and transit options for passengers with accessibility needs. May says it will adopt Via’s autonomous fleet platform to power booking, routing, passenger and vehicle assignment and identification, customer experience, and fleet management. The longer-term strategy involves multiple public transit deployments in 2021, starting with Arlington, Texas.
By all appearances, May Mobility was a scrappy success story. But a VentureBeat investigation revealed that May engineers struggled to maintain and upgrade the company’s vehicle platform, at one point spending months attempting to install an air conditioning system in the height of summer. Leadership’s ambition often outstretched May’s ability to deliver, which upset vendors, some of whom went unpaid for stretches of time. And not a single one of the company’s commercial routes approached full autonomy.
Despite this, Via plans to forge ahead with the deal. In collaboration with the city of Arlington and supported by a $1.7 million U.S. Federal Transit Administration Integrated Mobility Innovation Program grant, on-demand autonomous vehicle rides from May will be incorporated into Via’s existing public transit service in the city. This service has been operational since 2017 and was extended in October 2020.
“Via is a leading provider in on-demand transit services, with a software stack to create efficient, highly-optimized on-demand autonomous vehicle solutions,” a spokesperson told VentureBeat via email. “May Mobility selected Via as a partner to support the company’s shift from a focus on fixed route AV services to on-demand, and will leverage Via’s experience and technology to further develop its suite of autonomous vehicle capabilities in a new way.”
The one-year Via and May pilot program in Arlington, called Arlington Rideshare, Automation, and Payment Integration Demonstration (RAPID), is expected to launch for the public in March 2021. The companies say it will serve downtown Arlington and the University of Texas at Arlington campus, providing students and faculty with free rides during the test phase, all integrated into Via’s app.
Beyond Arlington, Via and May plan to expand access to full-scale autonomous transit networks in 2021, in coordination and partnership with public transit systems in a number of locations across the U.S. “Via’s partnership with May Mobility will integrate flexible, autonomous vehicle fleets into public transit today and will provide insights to support cities as they transform public transit infrastructure for the future,” Via cofounder and CEO Daniel Ramot said.
May’s post-deployment road has been bumpier than most, but some of its rivals haven’t fared much better. In February, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) partially suspended U.S. operations of France’s EasyMile after a passenger in Columbus, Ohio was injured while riding in one of the company’s driverless shuttles. And in 2018, the NHTSA suspended a separate Transdev program in Florida that sought to replace school buses with EasyMile vehicles.
The Department of Transportation two years ago published a prescient report on the autonomous shuttle sector that highlighted the limited vehicle autonomy, procurement challenges, and regulatory unpredictability shuttle startups have yet to address. The industry isn’t without apparent success stories, like that of Optimus Ride. But May’s setbacks illustrate the nascent technology’s limited applicability, particularly when stretched beyond its capabilities.
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