Edwin Olson of May Mobility

An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Edwin Olson, the founder and CEO of May Mobility, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of May Mobility – what problem were you trying to solve and why?

In 2007, I was helping to build MIT’s DARPA Urban Challenge vehicle, a competition that was the birth of the modern autonomous vehicle era. After stints working on autonomous vehicles at the University of Michigan, Ford, and Toyota, it slowly dawned on me that we were building the wrong thing. The world doesn’t need robo-taxis – we’ve learned (the hard way) that ride-hailing services actually make congestion worse, so a world clogged with robo-taxis has become my dystopian nightmare.

At the same time, we’re living in a world where transportation is hugely inequitable, inaccessible to many people, and where public transit, the thing that could actually help, is suffering from declining ridership.

What can we do?

Like Enrique Penalosa, the former Mayor of Bogota, Columbia said, a successful country is not a place where the poor have cars – it’s where the rich use public transit. And the key to this is making scalable transit systems an absolute joy to use – so good that people who can afford not to use them will use them anyway.

We envision cities in the future that are safer, more accessible, more equitable, and where the ugly acreage of roads and parking lots are transformed into green space, affordable housing, retail, and restaurants.

That’s what we’re building at May Mobility – transportation systems that will transform cities. And to do that, we need to upend the economics of transportation, and that’s where our autonomous driving technology becomes the key enabler.

What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?

Our company is complex. We do industrial, mechanical, and electrical design; we manufacture; we’re creating the best self-driving technology on the planet, and we are building the team that operates and maintains these vehicles in the real world. And we’re doing all of this on a fraction of the budget of some of the other AV companies. But, we can do that because we are incredibly focused on where we can have maximum impact, and incredibly focused on building a *business* that supports our long-term growth.

What does the future hold for May Mobility?

May Mobility is serious about our vision of transforming cities, and the people at May are passionate and committed. You’re going to see a company that is constantly executing, always driving with purpose towards that goal.

What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Ann Arbor?

Ann Arbor is a fantastic place to build a company. There’s a ton of smart and passionate people here, and it’s a great place to raise a family. I think one of the biggest challenges is that many people still think that you just have to move out to the coasts to experience the world of tech startups. And it’s true that the Bay version of the startup scene is at an entirely different level than what we have in Ann Arbor. But what Ann Arbor has is pretty incredible, and it’s growing every year.

What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

It’s easy to let the day-to-day effort of willing a company into existence expand to fill all of your time. But it’s important to always be asking “why?”. Why is this product worth working on? Why is your team at your company, rather than somewhere else? This is not a rhetorical exercise. Ask it out loud – “why are you here?” Those answers will help you focus on the really important things.


For more exclusive interviews, see our full Profile of a Founder series