For companies working on next-generation transportation technology, getting noticed in a busy market dominated by a few name-brand players can be challenging.
"We do believe this space is crowded from a hype standpoint," said Michael Fleming, CEO of Torc Robotics, a Blacksburg, Va., self-driving software supplier that grew out of Fleming's university work at Virginia Tech during the original Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Grand Challenge.
The company, founded in 2005, has developed autonomous technology for military and industrial use, but is less well-known for its pivot to consumer automotive.
"The more well-known a company is, the better," Fleming said. "We have taken some additional efforts to make sure new entrants in the automotive space are aware of Torc. We're one of the most experienced in this space."
For other companies, developing a brand image that reaches consumers may seem secondary to developing the core technology. But for many, attention is what attracts investment dollars and helps make the business understandable to consumers. Staff Reporter Shiraz Ahmed spoke to executives of three mobility startups to understand how they view branding and marketing in this nascent market.
Ed Olson, CEO of May Mobility, an autonomous shuttle company in Ann Arbor, Mich., speaks about differentiating the May Mobility brand and learning how to use humor to offset concerns about autonomous vehicles.
"Apple is a canonical example where people are willing to pay a premium for the Apple brand. They know when they buy the MacBook, it's going to be beautiful. It's not going to have a lot of rough corners.
"We're trying to build a vehicle that the in-cabin experience is really different. It's the un-bus experience. We want people to know when they are facing choices between autonomous ride services, when they see the May icon, they're going to get the May experience. Trust is like a cactus: It grows slowly and dies quickly. The goal is for the ride to be unremarkable.
"We do a lot of testing and we were throwing cardboard boxes out [in front of test vehicles] to see how quickly the vehicle would respond. We live in an office park, and there's a lot of random people walking around and sometimes they pull out their phones. So how could we improve the optics of that?
"One of our engineers suggested: Why don't we use big inflatable animals? It would be clearly comical. It steals the drama and replaces it with humor. We ordered a bunch of dinosaurs, and we ended up with a dozen inflatable dinosaurs sitting around the office.
"Engineers get bored. People started hiding them under desks and in conference rooms. Dinosaurs are a playful part of the May culture."