Ann Arbor company develops self-driving shuttle for Bedrock employees

This feature is courtesy of Driven, the story of how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.
The following story originally appeared in Driven, a new sister publication to Concentrate that covers metro Detroit's mobility industry.

For Bedrock Detroit employees, taking a shuttle from their parking garage to their Cadillac Square workplace is just business as usual. But that shuttle usually doesn’t drive itself.

So it’s no surprise that some workers were leery of stepping into the futuristic looking self-driving shuttle that came to pick them up on five evenings in October. Sally McGregor’s first thought when she saw the shuttle was, “I don’t want to ride that thing.”

“I was nervous about it because not having a driver makes me uncomfortable,” says McGregor, who works for Dan Gilbert-owned company Quicken Loans, and took the shuttle from her office to her car at the parking garage. “Once we got in it, it was just so much fun. It totally changed my attitude about it.”

McGregor was just one convert to self-driving vehicle technology. “There were plenty who were trepidatious and hesitant who ultimately got on it. And those folks, by and large, ended up being some of the most strongly positive reacting individuals that I saw during the week,” says Kevin Bopp, vice president of parking operations for Bedrock, a commercial real estate firm owned by businessman Dan Gilbert.

The shuttle ran for five nights in October on a roughly one-mile loop between Cadillac Square and a parking garage at Beaubien and Fort streets. It picked up workers on later shifts between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. in order to avoid high traffic on the streets. A few hundred workers used the shuttle during the pilot.

The shuttle, a Polaris GEM e6, holds six passengers and features a fully panoramic roof. A safety driver remained on board and intervened when necessary, though the shuttle ran on its own about 95 percent of the time, Bopp says.

Quicken Loans employees rode autonomous electric shuttles during the pilot.

McGregor said she was glad there was a safety driver onboard who could override the shuttle when, for example, it would stop behind a bus instead of driving around it. She was impressed that it stopped on its own when a pedestrian who was looking at his phone walked in front of the shuttle.

Transit opportunities for Detroit

The pilot came about after Bopp met one of the principals at May Mobility. The Ann Arbor-based autonomous vehicle startup wanted the chance to test and pitch its self-driving shuttle, and Bopp saw major opportunities, not only to transport his employees, but to potentially offer mobility solutions to a broader swath of residents and visitors to Detroit.

Bopp says he’s interested in seeing how these sorts of vehicles could help Detroiters in underserved neighborhoods commute to work or medical appointments, or even provide more interesting and engaging transit options to visitors staying in Bedrock hotels.

“Long-term, there’s huge opportunity,” he says. “Short-term, we have an opportunity to learn about moving our team members on a different-sized vehicle that engages the travel and commute experience differently.”

Bedrock typically uses 24- to 44-person shuttle buses. The six-passenger autonomous shuttles offered a more intimate experience and looped more frequently, diminishing wait times.

Bopp said he never felt unsafe riding the shuttle and he was impressed with the almost real-time tweaks that were made to offer a smoother ride. He and some colleagues rode the shuttle before launching the pilot and noted that certain turns were a little sharp or they felt a hard deceleration. By the next time he rode, those issues were resolved.

“People overall were very surprised at how natural it felt,” he said.

Riders offer tweaks for comfort 

This was May Mobility’s first pilot working with a customer. The company worked to educate riders about the vehicle and ensure they felt comfortable in it. Some of the biggest feedback the company got had nothing to do with how the vehicle rode, says May Mobility chief operating officer Alisyn Malek.

“They wanted music, they wanted that to be in the shuttle all the time,” Malek says. “They wanted cupholders, things that really get more towards creature comforts, which was a point of pride for us and our team that we were able to really provide such a smooth ride that the things they were worrying about are the next details we get to add to our vehicles.”

May Mobility is negotiating more tests in Texas and Florida. The company hopes to wrap up pilots by April 2018 and work on the first deployment by June, Malek says.

Bedrock felt its pilot was “incredibly successful” and is continuing conversations to implement the vehicles on a wider scale, according to Bopp.

“Our intention is absolutely to become a broader user of this technology in the near term,” says Bopp. “I think that it has a real place in our daily lives and the environment around us.”

Bopp said Bedrock and Gilbert’s broader family of companies want to provide different experiences to people who live and work in the city, whether or not those people live or work at one of their properties. That creates the kind of engagement and excitement that drives more people to Detroit, he says. He also wants to partner with city officials to address mobility challenges in underserved neighborhoods and communities.

“We very much want the world to understand that we think Detroit not just can be, but is, the next great tech corridor alley,” Bopp says.

“I understand what Silicon Valley is, but given the innovation that has always been part of Detroit’s fabric through the auto industry and its supporting automotive suppliers, the engineering minds that come out of this community, the tech savvy, and the way we approach problems through global partnerships, I think Detroit is a very real tech hub. And why wouldn’t we, with every ounce of energy we have, want to support that growth right here as opposed to somewhere else?”

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Images courtesy of May Mobility.
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