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Driverless Shuttles Hit the Streets of Detroit

Polaris Industries and May Mobility have grand ambitions to market short trips in densely populated communities and on campuses.

(TNS) -- Two electric vehicles made by Polaris Industries that have been outfitted with autonomous-driving software and sensors are headed to Detroit, where they will roll their way along city streets for a week.

The test, by robotics firm May Mobility and Bedrock LLC, a Detroit commercial real estate firm owned by billionaire Dan ­Gilbert, begins Oct. 9.

For safety purposes, the vehicles will have human drivers on board. But unless there is an emergency, the actual driving will be left to the machines.

The low-speed, six-seater shuttles were made by Polaris’ GEM division and are outfitted with May Mobility’s software and sensors. A team from May Mobility and 12 Polaris employees were involved in bringing about the big day.

During the five-day test, the autonomous shuttles will ferry Bedrock’s workers to and from their offices and parking ramps around downtown Detroit. By law, the GEM vehicles can only travel 25 miles per hour on public streets with 35 mph signage.

“We are doing just three hours of service a day,” said May Mobility CEO Edwin Olson from his Ann Arbor office. “For us, this pilot is really about making contact with the ball. Autonomous vehicles are new. There is a lot of stuff for us to learn about the technology.”

Officials of Medina-based Polaris said next month’s test in Detroit will mark its 16th project pairing its electric vehicles with ­autonomous driving, though the company remains much better known for ATVs.

For May Mobility, its partnership with Bedrock, which is bankrolling the test, is its “first customer relationship and we are really excited about moving this from a pilot to a full ­deployment,” Olson said.

If successful, May Mobility will buy more Polaris GEM vehicles and outfit them with the wires, sensors, tracking devices, dash displays and software conversions to ­create a fleet of driverless shuttles throughout downtown Detroit, where Bedrock has roughly 200 properties and scores of workers that could benefit from the “gee whiz” transportation option.

Ford, General Motors, ­Toyota, Tesla, Google, and Uber are among those racing to develop semi- and fully autonomous vehicles in hopes of carving out a chunk of the $11 trillion transportation industry.

Frank Douma, a policy program director at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said every company in Silicon Valley and Detroit is salivating over the money that could be made by helping to reduce and eventually eliminate the need for bus, taxi and other city drivers.

Market research firm Navigant Research recently predicted that 90 million light-duty vehicles with driverless features will be on the road by 2027. It also predicted that 129 million autonomous-capable vehicles will be sold between 2020 and 2035. Interest is high, especially among the ride-sharing community, said Navigant senior research analyst David Alexander in a statement.

“Studies have shown that an autonomous fleet can effectively replace a much larger number of private vehicles in a city center, which represent both opportunity and challenge for original equipment manufacturers,” he said.

It’s a long way off, but May Mobility’s Olson may be just the guy to help Detroit inch toward a robotic transit system. Olson, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, is the former principal investigator of Ford’s autonomous vehicle program. He is also the former co-director of autonomous driving for the Toyota Research Institute.

With investors’ help, he formed May Mobility in January 2017 to work toward launching fleets of autonomous vehicles that can provide the basic transportation needs of entire cities. “We have grand ambitions to market short trips in densely populated communities and on campuses,” Olson said. “We have a long customer pipeline with other pilot tests scheduled for the next six months. We’re excited.”

The Detroit test will be a big boost for Polaris, which is better known for its mud-churning ATVs, motorcycles and snowmobiles than for its electric vehicles. The company, which generates $4.5 billion in annual sales, has little reputation for autonomous prowess.

“I knew Polaris had the capability to do many things. But I didn’t know they were openly in the game of autonomous vehicles,” said Douma at the Humphrey School. “So this is kind of fun to hear that Minnesota companies are now jumping into the ring.”

The holy grail that innovators chase involves a system where anyone could use a cellphone app to order up a driverless car that safely picks and drops customers at their designations -- all day long, Douma said. “Everybody talks about disruptive technology. And this really is. It’s a fun time to be in transportation.”

Polaris bought its GEM line of tiny electric cars from Chrysler in 2011 and quickly boosted sales to retirement communities, universities, golf courses and resorts. Over time, Polaris toyed with combining its electric prowess with possible driverless features. It’s been a process, said Polaris spokesman Evan Miller.

In 2011 and 2012, Polaris worked with the U.S. military to help create a robot-driven ATV. The Army’s goal was to build a rugged vehicle that could quickly respond to disasters without risking human life. After years of military tests and experiments, Polaris’ driverless research now continues on civilian vehicles.

In 2013, Polaris started talking to Olson at the University of Michigan about possibilities. By 2015, Polaris’ GEM engineers were also working with universities in Santa Clara and San Diego and with a company called Auro Robotics. That firm “had two GEM vehicles and they started slowly working to make them into autonomous vehicles,” said Polaris product manager Patrick Weldon.

Today, in addition to the 16 pilot tests, Polaris has even more research projects including one at the University of Minnesota, said Weldon. He declined to disclose Polaris’ investment into driverless technology but noted “It is in the millions. It’s significant.”

©2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.