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Self-driving: a disruption around the corner. For whom?

The self-driving car service revenues (car as a service, i.e. taxi cab) are expected to be far larger than the revenues generated y selling self-driving cars. Image credit: ARK Investment Management

Doesn’t matter who you are talking to, car manufacturers, trucking companieus, taxi drivers and lay people, everybody perceives that the coming of self-driving cars is going to produce a disruption in the transportation area and in the transportation value chain.

There are perceptual aspects, such as “if I have a self-driving car there is no point in buying a super fast fancy car, since it will drive exactly at the same pace of any other car…”, and there are jobs on the line concerning truck and taxi drivers… There are also concerns from cars’ manufacturers  seeing their products morphing into a commodity and  a sharp decrease in demand (some studies are pointing out that 60% of the current vehicles can provide the same level -actually better- of transportation service if these cars become shared, self-driving, vehicles, a reasonable assumption considering that by far our cars are spending most of their time in a garage or by a sidewalk).

An interesting analyses on the value chain for self driving car is provided in an article published in 2017 by Oscar Torson, surely worth reading.

He is splitting the value chain among the car producers, the ones owning and managing the cars and the one taking care of the scheduling (making it possible to access the transportation service). If you want a parallel with today you can see cars manufacturers, private drivers owning the cars and Lyft / Uber managing the service.

Given, as his analyses is pointing out, that the service part is what is really generating revenues (in the long term you can disregard the cost of the vehicle -within reasonable boundaries outside of which the car will not make to the market) one as to ask (this is not in his article): “are car manufacturers going to be sitting ducks as disruption takes place?

I seriously doubt. If we look at a world when most cars will be a shared means of transportation it would be tempting to see the Ubers and Lyfts taking the upper hand, negotiating bulk prices for buying cars from manufacturers and reaping all the benefits.

However, what Ubers and its siblings have today is both the capability to attract drivers (and a driver can play with several on-demand transportation services) and to provide a very good scheduling support. Now, the former, in a self-driving cars scenario, disappears, no more human drivers (but you have the challenge of moving from a situation where you provided a service without owing cars to one where you have to own cars). The latter is basically a smart software and it can be developed, may be with some error and trials, by anyone (well, almost anyone).

An additional challenge for an owner of a fleet of cars will be to ensure operation and maintenance. Are current on-demand transportation providers skilled in this area. No, clearly they are not.

So why wouldn’t the big cars manufacturers as they see their market being commoditised on the one hand and squeezed in volumes on the other not consider to move from being a product seller to becoming a service providers?

They surely have the operation and maintenance logistics in place and they know how to work with it. As revenues shift from product to service why shouldn’t they also shift their business model?

We are surely heading to some interesting changes in the business scenario.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.