Does it make sense for OEMs to be investing in AVs and urban mobility products?

TLDR: AVs and robot taxi services are not a near-term (3-7 year) threat to existing OEM business lines, but they are a longer-term (7+ year) threat to OEMs; and this is why they are investing so heavily in AV technology.


Investments being made by large car manufacturer (OEMs) in self-driving autonomous vehicles (AVs) and urban mobility solutions are receiving a lot of attention these days, and for good reason. AVs promise significant societal benefits and economic opportunity, but I want to contemplate and deconstruct why OEMs are making these investments.  What is the business rationalle.

The going sentiment or explanation seems to be A) that AVs and these urban mobility solutions threaten the OEMs existing business and/or B) that the OEMs’ ability to design, manufacture, and distribute vehicles makes them a natural necessity in the future value chain of AVs. While I agree with the latter explanation, I think there is room to elaborate  on the former.

 

Vehicle sales will not decline significantly over near-term (3-7 years) because of robot taxi services.

First, the majority of cars and trucks are sold to consumers and businesses located outside dense urban city centers. Second, as I’ve explained in a previous post, robot taxi fleets will be economically constrained–over the near-term–to being deployed within dense urban city centers. As a result, over the near-term, if anywhere, robot taxi services will reduce car ownership rates within dense urban centers, but car ownership rates in urban centers are already low, therefore little impact will be made on the number of vehicles sold by OEMs. Simply put, car ownership is already low in the areas/populations wherein AV-based robot taxi services will be launched over the next 3-7 years. It won’t be until robot taxi services slowly make their way out to lower density suburban areas that car ownership there starts to be impacted.

I would suggest that vehicle sales by volume are declining not because of ride-hailing services, but rather vehicle build quality is improving. Cars are being built better and are lasting longer, and hence need to be replaced less frequently. Again, for most people living in the suburban US, ride-hailing is not a substitute for car ownership. And for most people living in urban environment, car-sharing (eg. GetAround) and short-term rental (eg. ZipCar) services are more likely to be a substitute* for car ownership than ride-hailing service is. Sure, hailing a ride is better than renting a car for two hours in most situations (that’s why ZipCar’s business is declining significantly), so ride-hailing services might be substitute for some urban market segments but I would argue that most car owners in urban areas own their car because they have consistent weekly inter-city transportation needs. Most people decide to buy/lease a vehicle because they have consistent transportation needs that cannot be solved with a better alternative. Getting to/from work or shuttling the kids to/from five days a week, for example.

The same holds true for suburban car owners. If you live outside dense urban areas and decide to buy/lease a vehicle, it is because you have consistent transportation needs that cannot be solved with a better alternative. Getting to/from work or shuttling the kids to/from five days a week, for example. For most people, car ownership is a better alternative for these consistent trips than Uber and Lyft.

As a result, I would argue that car ownership has not been impacted significantly by ride-hailing services–in neither urban nor suburban population.

Ride-hailing platforms have become a complementary transportation solution; not a substitute. They have become a substitute only for traditional taxi services. For urban dwellers, it complements mass-transit utilization. For suburban dwellers, it complements car ownership, as a solution for infrequent trip needs such as getting to/from the airport or nights on the town to avoid drinking and driving.

Although I don’t think robot taxi fares will come down to the level of mass-transit fares, the already low car ownership rates in urban populations means that I see robot taxi trips being used by consumers as a substitute for an occasional mass-transit trip; not permanent car ownership.

It’s a long-term play for OEMs.

Robot taxi services are not a near-term threat to OEMs, but I do think they are a long-term threat (7+ years). For the reasons stated above and in this post, robot taxi ride fares over the near-term will remain prohibitively high for suburban populations, where car ownership is highest. Eventually, in the longer-term (7+ years), the technology and economic constraints will change such that serving more sparsely populated areas can be done profitably, and robot taxi platforms will start serving these areas.

This is why I think hundred-year-old OEMs are investing in urban mobility and AV tech. OEMs don’t and shouldn’t care about being relevant over the next decade; they’re aiming to be relevant over the next 100 years.

 

*According to Jeffrey Rifkin, “Some 800,000 individuals in the U.S. are now using car-sharing services. Each car-share vehicle eliminates 15 personally owned cars.”