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Stop Worrying About Self-Driving Cars

November 21, 2016
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I am planning an article on car dealer “megatrends,” and this is the first item not making the list.  It’s a sexy topic, though, and journalists can’t leave it alone.  For example, here is top Cox guy Mark O’Neil trying to change the subject.  Mark would rather talk about online sales which, with predictive analytics, is a key trend dealers should be watching.

Autonomous vehicles are part of a cluster of technologies which have the potential to reduce car sales, dramatically in some scenarios.  This McKinsey study does a nice job of explaining the cluster.  In short: car rental fleets go away because everyone uses Uber, and Uber drivers are obsolete because the cars drive themselves.  Car ownership will be fractional, like a time-share.  If you do own a car, it can work as a taxi all day while you’re at the office.

This is indeed a formula for sharply reduced car sales … in Europe.  Most of the U.S. is sparsely populated, and poorly served by public transportation.  The Boston Consulting Group has produced the best study on autonomous vehicles, here, and this is from their study on car sharing:

Car sharing … will not do to the automotive business what iTunes did to music: it will not redirect a stream of revenues to a disruptive upstart, and it will not spark a widespread change in consumption.

The BCG predicts that, by 2021, car-sharing will have a trifling impact on U.S. sales: fifty-two vehicles, total (chart on page 11).  They predict that fully autonomous vehicles will not be available until 2025, and will not be 10% of the market until 2035.  It is only these vehicles that trigger the nightmare scenario for car dealers.  “Driver assistance” systems are luxury features, which boost dealer profits.

sae-levels

NHTSA policy guidance is based on the five-level SAE model.  This roundup, from Automotive News, envisages Level 4 autonomous vehicles by 2021.  No manufacturer is even guessing at a date for Level 5.

Bringing these vehicles to market is an important challenge for the manufacturers, and they will have an important impact on society.  They will not change the business of selling cars, however, for a good long time.  For car dealers, other trends are more urgent.

Links for the two BCG studies, in case you can’t download the PDFs: Car Sharing, Autonomous Vehicles.

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