Driverless cars are the future. This we know. What is not clear, however, is when that future will arrive. The most recent entrant into this exciting field is Cruise Automation, a startup based in San Francisco.
Cruise Automation will be testing its aftermarket automated highway driving kit in early 2015. For those who drive an Audi A4 or S4 and want to fork out $10,000, you could be one of the first to be able to read a book or safely check email while driving on the highway without paying any attention to where you’re going.
Cruise is a very young company, founded in late 2013, so we should be a bit skeptical of its claims until a longer track record has been established.
Other companies are, however, making similarly bold announcements. Tesla’s Elon Musk stated in early June, “I am confident that in less than a year you will be able to go from highway on-ramp to highway exits without touching any controls.” This is a far cry from fully automated driving but it’s a major improvement nonetheless. I look forward to taking long road trips and napping liberally as my car transports my snoring self safely down the road at 75 miles an hour.
Google, another major player in the driverless-car arena, surprised a lot of people by shifting its approach to cars with little human intervention. Rather than focus on humans as co-pilots in normal cars fitted with sensors, Google’s revamped approach to the driverless car future now focuses more modestly on specially designed buggy cars that have very limited human controls. This is because Google has found that human co-pilots test driving its fleet of Lexus SUVs outfitted with sensors and automated controls shifted very quickly from disbelief and suspicion that computers could drive a car safely, to overconfidence in the computer’s ability -- and thus a tendency to check out as a co-driver. This, Google believes, isn’t a safe option for cars that are intended to have an alert human co-pilot ready to step in if needed.
Google’s new specially designed cars are like marshmallows on wheels, complete with a cute face on the front. Politico’s Ben White expressed his concern about Google’s new approach, saying, “Does no one else get that if you were going to design a soulless killing machine it would look exactly like this?”
Anyway, even if driverless cars are still years away, as may well be the case (particularly for fully automated cars), it is certainly not too early to think about how we can profit from this utopian future.
But first, I need to address the possible dystopian future. IEEE projects that up to 75 percent of vehicles in the U.S. will be fully automated by 2040, so this isn’t entirely a pipe dream. Some have already expressed concerns about a potential increase in driving from driverless cars making it so easy to take those long road trips that greenhouse gas emissions and other types of pollution increase. We can’t ignore this possibility, but my feeling is that any increase in driving by those fortunate enough to have a driverless car will be far outweighed by the increased fuel efficiency that comes with non-human drivers at the helm. And when we consider the very substantial reduction in traffic accidents that will likely occur by getting human drivers out of the driver’s seat, it seems pretty clear that the net benefits of driverless cars will be positive.
What follows are my suggestions on how to benefit financially from this major new trend, following up on my recent article looking at how to invest in the renewable energy future. As in my previous piece, my suggestions here are not to be considered any kind of official financial advice. Rather, consider them to be peer-to-peer tips.
Google is perhaps the most obvious company to invest in when it comes to driverless cars. A major benefit of investing in Google is that it comes with a wide array of other technologies and revenue streams, diversifying the risk of a focus solely on driverless cars. Many analysts think Google has plenty of room to grow still. And if the driverless car future takes off in the next few years, it’s very likely that Google will be a major player. Google has announced plans to have 100 of its driverless cars on roads in 2015. Is the future here yet? [Full disclosure: I just bought some shares of Google in the course of researching this article.]
Tesla is another good -- albeit risky -- option for investing in the driverless car future, simply because Musk and company have demonstrated the ability to execute and deliver very impressive products. Musk, as mentioned, has projected automated highway driving in Tesla vehicles by the end of the year, and pending legal issues in various states, it looks promising for Tesla’s vehicles to have additional automated driving features steadily added in new models or via software updates. (I haven’t focused on legal issues here, but suffice it to say, California and a handful of other states have recently passed laws allowing automated driving to some degree, and it seems likely that other states will follow suit before long). [Full disclosure: I own some Tesla stock.]
Nissan is the most advanced of the majors when it comes to electric vehicles, based on its increasingly popular electric vehicle, the Leaf. Nissan has announced its intent to offer driverless cars by 2020. This is still a ways out, and will likely be delayed, but, again, I’m talking about investing in this article, not trading. And due to its vehicle diversity and size, investing in Nissan is a lot less risky than investing in Tesla.
Investing in lithium stocks is a good way to take advantage of the coming boom in electric vehicles. Driverless cars are related, but of course independent of the propulsion technology used in the vehicle. However, it seems to me that electric vehicles are a natural fit for automated driving features because people who purchase electric vehicles are likely to inherently be more drawn to new technology, and it should be an easier sell to convince people to give the automated driving option a whirl. The lithium ETF LIT is, accordingly, a reasonable bet on the future of driverless cars, as well as electric vehicles and energy storage more generally. [Full disclosure: I own some LIT shares.]
I haven’t been able to find any exchange-traded funds for the driverless car future. ETFs are a good way to mitigate risk because they enable investments in a basket of related stocks. It’s quite likely that one or more ETFs for the driverless car future will appear in the next year or so, and it might behoove farsighted investors to wait until that happens before diving into this space.
Thinking a bit more broadly about how society will be transformed by automated vehicles, it seems that the time-honored investment option of shorting certain companies or sectors may also be a good way to invest in this future.
If automated driving does take off, it’s quite likely that accident rates will dip sharply because computers are so much better at driving than humans are. This gives rise to the possibility of shorting insurance companies in the long term. Or shorting airlines as people increasingly turn to their automated cars for making longer trips. These last ideas are very speculative, so please take them with a big grain of salt.
In all likelihood, the driverless car future will take many years -- at least a couple of decades -- to materialize in a way that really transforms our society. But the point of investing is to identify long-term significant trends and get ahead of the market.