It’s not uncommon nowadays that businesses mention autonomous vehicles as an opportunity for growth and profitability. Unless their vehicles are self-driven, ride-sharing services such as Lyft or Uber don’t particularly promise a sure path to profitability at the moment. In an article published last week, the CEO of AT&T mentioned self-driving cars as a reason for his optimism
Even Warren Buffett quails at the prospect of competing in such a powerful field of rivals. “Everybody has just got two eyeballs, and they’ve got x hours of discretionary time … maybe four or five hours a day,” he said recently at a charity event, speaking generally about the entertainment industry. “You’ve got some very, very, very big players that are going to fight over those eyeballs. The eyeballs aren’t going to double. You have very smart people with lots of resources trying to figure out how to grab another half-hour of your time.” His assessment: “I would not want to play in that game myself. That’s too tough for me.”
Any business that Buffett wants to avoid sounds unpromising, but Stephenson rejects the legendary investor’s premise. Acknowledging that “there are only 16 waking hours in the day,” he says, “Well, we haven’t filled up the 16 hours yet.” He nods toward his office window over Commerce Street with its busy traffic, which he says will ease when 5G networks enable autonomous cars. “When you have the lion’s share of those cars autonomous, for the average person that’s another two hours of availability of screen time, consuming video.”AT&T Has Become a New Kind of Media Giant
Are autonomous cars the answer though?
Let’s say, generously speaking, 10 years from now all the cars would be self-driving. What would it look like? If the cars don’t carry passengers, without drivers, where would the cars go? Would all the cars keep driving endlessly till they are called to pick up passengers? Would the cars park on the street and if so, would there be enough space to accommodate all the cars? If the cars park in a garage somewhere, how would the garages be planned and constructed so that the garages are all well spread throughout a decently big area?
There can be many more questions that would result from having mainly autonomous vehicles on the streets. I can’t think of them all, but you get the idea. Right now, we don’t even have many on the streets yet, let alone answering questions and tackling problems that ensue the arrival of self-driving cars. Additionally, I personally don’t believe that we can have all cars or the majority of the cars self-driven on the streets in the next 10 years. I wrote something about it here.
If it takes a long time for self-driving cars to be realized and populated, can the likes of AT&T, Uber or Lyft wait till that time? AT&T’s debt is almost $200 billion and as Warren Buffett said above, and I agreed with his view, that the competition for eyeballs wasn’t going to get any easier. Uber or Lyft keeps losing money operationally and will be expected to continue that path, unless self-driving cars come along. 10-15 years of losing millions, if not billions, of dollars every year doesn’t seem a sort of business that investors like. And before any comparison between Uber and Amazon is raised, the two are far from being similar to each other. Look at their respective operating income.
Obviously, some years from now, it is possible that I may be embarrassed for saying all this and the fine folks in Silicon Valley or that somewhere in the US can deliver the miracle. Until then, I prefer being pragmatic to venturing out too far into fiction and imagination.