Fri | Aug 17, 2018

Polaris’ electric GEM vehicles go driverless in Detroit

Published:Sunday | October 1, 2017 | 12:02 AM
Robotics expert May Mobility outfitted Polarisa electric GEM vehicles with self-driving technology that it will be testing downtown Detroit from October 9 to 13.
Polaris has made a good name for itself in the past by building reliable All Terrain Vehicles.


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 October 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 garages 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, Michigan, 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 Polaris, based outside the Twin Cities, 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 US$11 trillion transportation industry.

Frank Douma, a policy programme 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 centre, 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 towards 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 programme. 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 towards 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 US$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 cell phone app to order up a driverless car that safely picks up 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.