Part 1 ‒ The great car crashThaiha Nguyen, Investment Manager
A wave of revolutionary new technologies is set to transform the way we travel from A to B. In this short series, Thaiha Nguyen, a Baillie Gifford investment manager, takes an in-depth look at the business of personal transport on the brink of change.
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If we couldn’t aspire to changes that we struggle to describe, we’d be trapped within the ideas that we already have. Our inability to explain our reasons is a measure of how far we wish to travel.
Joshua Rothman, 'The art of decision making', The New Yorker, Jan 2019
Driven to disruption: winners and losersCar manufacturers
Will be forced to retool themselves to make EVs and autonomous fleetsOil and gas
Faces transport sector demand shock in 60% of fossil fuel marketCargo and haulage
Human-driven industry could be undercut by driverless equivalentAuto insurance
Potential demand collapse if AVs significantly cut accidentsAirline
Driverless car journeys may displace short-haul domestic flyingReal estate
More leisurely commutes could boost suburban property values
New opportunities may arise as commuting-time attention is freed upData infrastructure
Autonomous driving boosts demand for 5G, fibre and data centresUtilities
Peak-load times will be transformed by mass overnight charging of EVs
For the first time since the advent of the internal combustion engine, a complete transformation in car transport is underway.
Instead of personally-owned, gasoline-powered, human-driven vehicles, the advanced economies are transitioning to electric-powered and driverless vehicles, paid for by the trip or by subscription schemes. This great shift promises to solve the many problems arising from the way we currently get from A to B.
Car ownership as a condition of social inclusion and prosperity dates to Henry Ford and his dream to build a car “so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one”. Not only did Ford make cars cheap, he enabled his own workers to buy them by introducing the $5-per-day salary in 1914.
In the US, Ford helped create a country where car ownership was a requirement, not just an aspiration. His mass-produced Model T coincided with the discovery of large reservoirs of crude oil in Texas and Oklahoma. The low price of energy-dense petroleum meant that the oil and automotive industries grew rich quick and were able to lobby government for more highways and fewer railways.
In the US today, 212 million licensed drivers own 252 million light-duty vehicles. They drive 3.2 trillion miles a year, burning more than 180 billion gallons of fuel, making up about half of total US oil consumption. Car and truck emissions comprise a fifth of greenhouse gases. The distance travelled by car keeps growing. Vehicle miles jumped as much as 50 per cent from 1990 to 2016.
Clocking up those miles is a horrendously inefficient business. Over 95 per cent of the cars sold in the US run on gasoline but less than 30 per cent of that energy is translated into motion. The rest is used to power headlights, radios and air conditioners or is wasted on heat and noise. Since cars typically weigh 20 times more than a person, that means a mere 1.5 per cent of the gasoline’s energy is spent moving the driver from A to B.
Such shocking inefficiencies arise because cars are massively overbuilt. In the US, 85 per cent of travel is by automobile, with an average occupancy of just 1.1 people per vehicle commuting to work. Average speeds in cities are often less than 30 miles per hour and can run as low as 12 mph in congested areas.
Yet our cars are built for at least five adults with engines that can make the car reach 120 mph. Heavier propulsion and chassis systems drive up costs and increase risks. The World Health Organisation estimates that car crashes kill 1.35m people a year. That includes approximately 40,000 Americans – the equivalent of a 737 plane falling out of the sky every day.
Worse still, American automobiles sit unused about 95 per cent of the time and must be parked somewhere when idle. Towns and cities devote valuable real estate to car parks and garages, at the expense of green space, schools and hospitals. Parked end-to-end, Earth’s cars would encircle our planet nearly 100 times – and that’s just with the existing ratio of one vehicle for every eight humans.
Finally, traffic congestion is a global disaster. More than half the world’s population lives in cities, a proportion expected to climb to 70 per cent by 2050. That presents big challenges in transportation, infrastructure and safety. Congestion costs each American an estimated 97 hours (four days) per year, or $1,348 annually, a total of $87bn in 2018.
At that rate, Americans will have lost $2.8tn to traffic jams by 2030. According to management consultants McKinsey & Company, congestion levels are reaching breaking point in many cities and can cost a nation as much as 2 to 4 per cent of GDP in lost time, wasted fuel and increased costs of doing business.
Henry Ford’s dream has become a burden. The car is such an underutilised asset that the car industry is now one of the most disruptable businesses on earth. The forces of that disruption, meanwhile, are achieving unstoppable momentum.
The Four Part Revolution
Oil dependency, safety, traffic congestion and global warming are all potentially solvable problems, but only by actors outside the existing car industry. The vested interests of the current stakeholders in the 130-year-old road transportation system, such as car, oil and insurance companies, mean they alone would never have catalysed the mobility revolution.
The period coinciding with the financial crisis of 2008–2009 was a disaster for the industry. While GM and Chrysler went bankrupt and Ford narrowly avoided the same fate, a handful of industry outsiders started to challenge the incumbents’ dominance by converging new technology with innovative business models.
Google gathered the brightest minds emerging from the US Government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenge programme and launched its self-driving project. Upstart Tesla delivered its first Roadster in 2008, establishing the promise of high-performance electric vehicles. Shortly after that, Uber and Lyft established a vast market for ride-sharing, challenging the entire personal car ownership model.
A decade since these seeds of the mobility revolution were planted, we are seeing the emergence of a new mobility ecosystem that could offer faster, cheaper, cleaner, safer, more efficient and more personalised travel. Transportation is on the brink of being disrupted by the digital technology revolution – like retail, entertainment, finance and healthcare before it.
We are experiencing the dawn of the ‘digital mobility’ age, shaped by four concurrent trends (a glossary of new transport terminology is provided in the appendix):
1. Shared mobilityThe shared use of a vehicle allows users to access transportation services on demand. The most common form of shared mobility is ride hailing, operated by companies like Uber and Lyft. But shared mobility goes beyond cars and encompasses micromobility, a rising trend of bike and scooter sharing. Some impacts of shared mobility include enhanced transportation accessibility, as well as reduced driving and decreased personal vehicle ownership. As a result, shared mobility programmes could yield environmental, social and transportation system benefits.
2. ElectrificationElectric vehicles (EVs) first emerged in the mid-19th century, and the electric engine was the preferred propulsion system for motor vehicles until surpassed by the internal combustion engine, which has ruled for almost a century. In the 21st century, EVs saw a resurgence due to technological developments mainly in battery technology, an increased focus on renewable energy and various government incentives.
3. Autonomous drivingAutonomous vehicles (AVs) are driverless vehicles capable of sensing their environment and moving safely with little or no human input. They are equipped with a variety of sensors, such as radars, LiDARs (which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, a survey method using pulsed laser beams to detect distance and depth) and cameras operating as ‘eyes’ to sense their surroundings. Advanced computing systems, powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning then interpret sensory information to identify appropriate navigation paths, avoid obstacles and drive safely.
4. Urban air mobilityUrban transportation systems that move people by air are being developed in response to traffic congestion and ballooning urban populations. A new generation of aircraft called electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) hold the promise of replacing driving around cities, saving man hours by reducing time-consuming trips by road to short hops by air. The vehicles are designed to take off and land vertically in small areas, to be powered by electric engines and to operate on demand like road-bound ride-hailing services.
This series considers each of these trends, highlighting their potential as well as the challenges to their wider adoption.
While uncertainty abounds, particularly about the speed of transition, it seems unlikely that the process will be stalled or reversed. The transition towards a new mobility ecosystem will have wide-reaching impacts spanning a host of industries, and we should consider in more detail what the wider impacts might be.
Transportation is on the brink of being disrupted by the digital technology revolution
The impacts of future mobility
The car industry touches nearly every facet of the US economy. It represents nearly $2tn in revenues, about 10 per cent of US GDP. The commercial trucking industry adds another $700bn to that figure. Almost seven million people work in the US car sector, with another four million employed as drivers. Those figures don’t include the many additional jobs that rely on transportation provisions, such as warehouse workers, public works employees and those in delivery services. For that matter, the transition toward a new mobility ecosystem will have wide-reaching impacts that span a host of industries and players.
Even more exciting is the fact that all the disruptive forces in mobility are acting simultaneously, so magnify each other’s impact. Ride-sharing couldn’t reach its full potential without autonomous driving lowering costs per mile to be competitive with car ownership. Conversely, autonomous driving would take longer to get to market if people had not become more willing to share cars and still regarded cars as personal assets. Without the development of electric cars and battery technology, urban air mobility would remain a futuristic fantasy.
One of the biggest concerns about the future of mobility is job losses caused by autonomous technologies and their downsizing impact on the economics of the automotive and oil sectors. If we assume that the four million people employed as drivers work for 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year that translates into 8 billion hours of paid work that we stand to lose.
It should be remembered however that America’s 212 million licensed drivers drive their vehicles for 56 minutes a day on average. Nationally that translates into 72 billion hours a year spent driving. It would be unwise to obstruct technologies that stand to liberate 72 billion potentially productive hours a year for fear of losing 8 billion hours of paid driving work.
What sort of new jobs might emerge for the people who previously worked as drivers? Ride-sharing company Lyft’s co-founder John Zimmer intends to evolve his on-demand mobility service to the point where it provides “rooms on wheels” – mobile chambers where concierges could provide meals, drinks or other services.
Logistics technicians will oversee the computer-controlled deployment of vehicles to ensure the fleets are properly dispersed, while the requirement for cleanliness – a potentially important differentiating factor in the shared mobility market – will require many more people to staff what used to be car washes.
There are many other potential new jobs to be created, in sectors such as mobility management, content creation for autonomous vehicle riders, cyber security for cars, eVTOL services and manufacturers of electric batteries.
The new mobility era will also affect job creation in other sectors. For example, online retail will become more prevalent as delivery costs fall. It should be possible to manage a likely period of high structural unemployment as people learn new skills, just as our forebears managed the transition from the age of horse-related industries, such as blacksmithing, to that of automobiles.
What follows is a summary of the industries likely to be affected the most by mobility disruption and a look at some of the investment implications.
Known in industry jargon as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), car makers are under intense pressure to keep their legacy business viable while pivoting to new businesses where they lack core competencies or the deep pockets needed for research and development.
They face enormous challenges: how to transition from internal combustion engines to EVs, how to evolve from being a product-selling business to becoming end-to-end mobility services providers, and how to acquire the technical expertise to prepare for the future of autonomous vehicles.
The industry’s big concern is that the new vehicles will become commoditised. Automobile engineering will simplify when vehicles are electric, driverless and less accident-prone. Market differentiators are unlikely to be about added value from sleek design and cosmetic adornments, but more about the customer experience. This will be driven more by software and data than by traditional points of competition.
It is possible that OEMs will evolve like the PC industry, where further hardware innovation is limited, and most value will accrue to the software that will be developed by autonomous driving companies. Nowadays, few can tell the differences between Dell, HP, Samsung or Lenovo laptops. However, such a shift may be even more challenging for car companies whose pricing power is lower. Instead of selling to individual customers, they will sell cars to fleet operators with higher bargaining power and more demanding requirements. To stay relevant and profitable, there may be consolidation between car companies. For instance, we have seen German OEMs getting closer, from the three-way joint acquisition of Nokia’s mapping division, HERE, in 2015 by BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler, to the joint venture between BMW and Daimler to develop ride-hailing, charging networks and parking facilities in 2019.
Also, Ford and Volkswagen recently extended their existing partnership from commercial vehicles and mid-size trucks to autonomous driving as they share an equal percentage of ownership in Argo AI, a self-driving company founded by Bryan Salesky, who was one of the top engineers at Google’s autonomous driving division, Waymo, in the early days.
Oil And Gas
As transportation accounts for around 60 per cent of global oil demand, the shift towards clean-energy transport will have a huge impact. Currently non-internal combustion engine vehicles, including battery electric vehicles (BEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) account for a small percentage of the total fleet but a 50 per cent penetration in 20 years’ time could remove 30 per cent of current oil demand.
The argument that the growing demand in many emerging market countries for increasing volumes of transportation will support increasing oil demand may miss the point that the new demand could be fulfilled by clean renewable energy, rather than by oil. In fact, China is the world’s biggest supporter of EVs. Also, more efficient engines, smart routing and car sharing etc can all help to reduce oil usage.
A worldwide reduction in demand for oil and gas will have a profound impact on global geopolitics, for example by neutering OPEC, reducing the power of Russia and creating problems for oil-dependent parts of the US. The vested interests of the oil industry, which a century ago successfully lobbied for highways over railways, represent the biggest threat to mobility disruption.
Cargo delivery and haulage
There is a strong economic case for self-driving trucks. The trucking industry faces a shortage of 50,000 drivers and is approaching a 100 per cent annual turnover rate. The average driver age is 49, compared to the overall workforce average of 42.
Driving a truck, especially on long-haul routes, is a gruelling and unappealing career choice. Also, due to safety regulations, drivers are legally restricted to 11 hours of driving a day and 60 hours a week. Self-driving trucks that operate around the clock, and with less fuel-burning braking, could dramatically increase revenues for fleet providers.
According to TuSimple, a San Diego self-driving truck company, driverless trucks could reduce operational costs to 20 cents per mile, from $1.80 per mile for human-driven trucks. The saving could significantly affect the overall profitability of truck operators and e-commerce players under increasing pressure to ship their products quickly and cheaply.
Most of the larger truck manufacturers, including Daimler and Volvo, are actively involved in developing highly automated solutions. However, as with passenger cars, automation is not their core expertise. There are many start-ups that are developing automated trucking solutions, for example TuSimple, Embark, Peloton, and Kodiak. However, the question is whether those companies will manage to capture the market before bigger competitors, such as Tesla and Waymo, shift their focus to the trucking industry.
The US auto insurance market is worth roughly $300bn in annual sales, but if AVs reduce the number of accidents significantly, demand for insurance will decline. Currently, about 90 per cent of accidents are thought to be caused at least in part by human error, but the elimination of the human element in the driving process will shift the insurance burden to the fleet owner (in the event ofride-sharing services) or the manufacturer instead of the driver.
Since those companies will have more negotiating power, many may be able to get lower rates or to self-insure. Competition is also rising as the likes of Uber and Lyft are operating their own insurance businesses.
KPMG has predicted that the car insurance market will shrink by 70 per cent by 2050, losing $137bn of its value. Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway owns the auto insurer GEICO as well as other insurance companies, acknowledged that self-driving cars would hurt the industry: “If they’re safer, there’s less in the way of insurance costs, [and] that brings down premiums significantly.”
The above are just some of the most obvious industries vulnerable to mobility disruption. The impacts on many other industries are only limited by our own imagination. For example:
While trans-continental driverless journeys donít appear to be on the horizon, domestic and short-haul flights could face a significant threat from self-driving cars. Once autonomous vehicles make car travel more convenient, many people might choose to take an on-demand car ride for shorter trips instead of enduring the inconveniences of air travel.
Faster and easier commutes could shift residential property value from properties in urban centres to those in suburban areas. In commercial real estate, spaces currently predicated on human drivers could be converted to other uses.
The average American drives almost an hour each day. Without having to keep their eyes on the road, they could have more time to consume news and entertainment. Broadcasters could compete to provide video content that travellers would be able to consume without risking safety. For advertisers, it might also create a huge opportunity to present riders with location-based ads for nearby goods and services.
Data centres and internet infrastructure
Driverless cars will generate huge amounts of data and will need the infrastructure to support it. Intel estimates that an autonomous car could generate 4 terabytes of data per day, which will require widespread low-latency wireless connections, more data centres and more robust fibre networks. The current 4G networks do not provide the speed and reliability needed to process that much data efficiently. The advancement of 5G will help autonomous technology reach its full capability.
The expected increase in EVs on the road and later eVTOLs will create a challenge for power companies. While EVs will not lead to a substantial increase in power demand, they will reshape the demand for electricity at different times. The most pronounced effect will be an increase in evening peak loads, as people plug in their EVs. Beyond peak-load increases, the highly volatile load profiles of public fast-charging stations will also require additional system balancing and real-time pricing.
Undoubtedly many uncertainties remain and we can expect a major power shift among industries. But while it is hard to predict the size of the impact, even being vaguely right in our predictions about the direction of travel will give rise to many exciting investment opportunities.
Thaiha Nguyen Investment Manager
Thaiha is an Investment Manager who joined Baillie Gifford in 2014. She is an analyst in the US Equities Team and has been involved in running the North American portion of the Managed Fund since 2020. She is also a Portfolio Adviser to the Positive Change Strategy. She is a CFA Charterholder and graduated BA (Hons) in Economics from the University of Cambridge in 2014.
New transport terminology: a glossary
Advanced driver assistance systems such as automatic emergency braking, lane departure correction and adaptive cruise control
Air traffic management
Battery electric vehicles
Distributed electrical propulsion
Electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles
Hybrid electric vehicle
Internal combustion engine
Light detection and ranging sensing system, which uses pulsed laser beams to measure depth and distance to build up a 3-D map of the environment
Transportation schemes designed for short distances, using lightweight, usually single-person vehicles, such as scooters and bikes
Non-internal combustion engine vehicles
This encompasses battery electric vehicles (BEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs)
Original equipment manufacturers (carmakers)
Over-the-air updates for firmware and software, performed wirelessly rather than via cable
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles
Small unmanned aircraft system
Transportation as an asset
Transportation as a service
Urban air traffic management system
Small airports for eVTOLs
Airports for VTOL aircraft
Pads for one or two VTOLs with minimal infrastructure
Vertical take-off and landing vehicles
Important Information and Risk Factors
The views expressed in this article are those of Thaiha Nguyen and should not be considered as advice or a recommendation to buy, sell or hold a particular investment. They reflect personal opinion and should not be taken as statements of fact nor should any reliance be placed on them when making investment decisions.
This communication was produced and approved in December 2020 and has not been updated subsequently. It represents views held at the time of writing and may not reflect current thinking.
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