Of all the technological marvels in today’s world, there are only a few that are likely to make it into the mainstream and stay there. And autonomy is set to be one of them.
From myth to (limited) reality, the idea of machines controlling themselves has always fascinated people. More than the ability to wear your phone on your wrist or search the internet with your glasses, autonomous technology has the potential to be extremely useful and, in some cases, even lifesaving.
Nowhere is this truer than in the market for autonomous cars.
Despite the stigma created by the first iterations of driverless cars, the technology is still spreading, still improving.
After all, it's not just the benefit of not driving yourself that's making autonomous driving so popular...
Safety in Driverless Cars
Before we get into the market madness surrounding the idea of driverless cars, let me explain exactly how “driverless” these cars really are.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has defined five levels of driverless-ness or autonomy:
- Level 0 — No autonomy. Drivers are in full control at all times. Just your everyday car.
- Level 1 — Minimal autonomy. A car can do one thing for itself at a time. This could include stability control or brake-assist systems. Many cars have had these capabilities for years, and most don't think of them as autonomous features.
- Level 2 — Combined autonomy. The car can do two or more things for itself at a time. This could include a combination of cruise control and lane centering, for example. Tesla's Model S has features that just about reach this level (when they function correctly).
- Level 3 — Near autonomy. The car can, in a large part, drive itself and perform “safety critical functions." But a human driver is still required to be behind the wheel to take over. Uber and Google are testing cars at this level.
- Level 4 — Full autonomy. The car is in full control. No driver is required, and in some instances, a driver couldn't take over if they wanted to.
Level 4 is, of course, the end goal. Google and Ford are even going so far as to design autonomous cars that don't have a single pedal, gear shift, or steering wheel in them. This may be a bit much for today's drivers who are used to being in control, but it could someday be the norm.
Consider how much your life could improve if only you didn't have to waste time in the car.
Instead, you could use that time to get work done, socialize, or even get some extra sleep. Road rage is a rampant problem today, but it would be virtually eliminated if drivers weren't actually driving.
What's more, with a road full of cars communicating with each other and driving in the safest way possible, commutes would drop in length just from the sheer lack of human holdups.
And don't overlook the safest bit here...
Short of giving passengers the freedom to work, play, or nap on the go, self-driving cars are far safer than cars that are driven by humans.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 1.25 million people per year die in car accidents worldwide. Of those accidents, 90% are caused by human errors. People get distracted, drive drunk, or simply panic and lose control.
But a computer doesn't do any of those things.
How effective can autonomous cars be in saving lives? Actually, conditions have already improved.
In 2006, the U.S. had 40,000 vehicular deaths. It dropped to 35,000 by 2015 due to an increase in features such as automatic braking and collision-avoidance systems. Even individual capabilities at Level 1 have proven to be lifesaving in numerous situations.
McKinsey & Company has estimated that within the next few decades, autonomous vehicles (AVs) could become the “primary means of transport” and could reduce the number of crashes by 90%.
Of course, we still have a long way to go before the technology is that safe. Crashes of Google cars and the death of a Tesla Model S driver in early 2016 call into question the true safety of autonomous cars. However, compared to 35,000 deaths a year in the safest road conditions the world has ever seen, the rewards are well worth the risks.
And this is still just the first phase. Once we're at the point where you never have to drive a car again, it will be time for you to never own a car again...
The Ownerless Revolution
We've all been there before: sitting in traffic, staring at the brake lights ahead for entirely too long, then finally reaching our destination only to be forced to drive around even more just to find a parking spot!
Parking is one of the worst things about driving, especially if you live or work in a crowded area.
But autonomous cars could make parking spots, lots, and even garages things of the past. Rather than parking, the car could just keep driving for short trips; on long trips, it could drive itself home and come pick you up later.
But where many companies are taking this route, others are going even further.
Imagine if you didn't have to call your car to get you, you just called a car. A car you didn't buy or lease. A car you never have to worry about filling up or charging. A car you don't need space for in your garage or on your street.
The vehicle industry is changing fast from an industry of goods to an industry of services.
It's being called “transportation on demand,” and it's the future of the car market.
In this future, companies don't sell you cars, they sell you the services of getting around. You pay for a membership and for the right to call the car to you whenever you need it.
This, I know, sounds like a bridge too far. But it's already pretty close to being a reality.
Take a look at this chart:
According to the chart, car sales have peaked. Falling sales numbers from the biggest car companies in the world — Toyota, GM, and Volkswagen — support this fact.
What's eating their numbers?
It's not autonomous cars — not yet, anyway — but the increased use of ride-sharing and temporary car services.
On any given road, you may see a car drive by with a large green Zipcar logo on it. Depending on where you live, the logo may be for Car2Go, Hertz 24/7, or any of the many car-sharing services that operate all over the world.
Watching the markets, there's news nearly every day about the competition among Uber, Lyft, and even Chinese company DIDI. The ease of catching a ride with someone via an app has proven to be extremely lucrative for these competitors, one of which is already planning an IPO.
If they can't make money selling you the cars, they'll make money selling the services instead.
And depending on who's left when the world reaches this point, the competition among services may make it even cheaper to use transportation on demand than it ever was to actually own a car.
Think about it: no gas or electricity charge, no maintenance, and no worry about driving or parking ever again!
Sounds like a dream for any driver who I know. And it's set to be a real benefit to investors who are ready to make the shift from cars as a product to cars as a service.
Driving Stocks Higher
These three stocks each have unique advantages over the competition that will boost both their businesses and their stocks in the coming years.
Ford (NYSE: F) is the first major carmaker to put a date on its autonomous car release. And whether or not it meets that deadline with a Level 4 autonomous car in tow, the stock will see the benefits of the announcement in the coming years.
The company is reportedly working with four different startups and expanding its Silicon Valley team to develop the vehicle. Ford has the advantage here because it's already an established carmaker with a long-term customer base.
“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” says Ford President and CEO Mark Fields.
Ford has, in fact, been researching and developing an AV for the past 10 years. And the recent ramp-up in autonomous R&D across the market has signaled that it's time to show the world what it's come up with.
By 2021, the company plans to have a fleet of autonomous cars for its ride-hailing service. And by 2025, the cars is going to be available to consumers — if they still want them.
Google, known now by its parent company name, Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL), is approaching the problem from the other direction. Instead of having a base as a car company, Google is one of the world's leading tech companies.
Google will have the advantage here because it's starting with a major background in software engineering, research, and even digital mapping. The use of Google Maps has been a big part of how Google's test cars have navigated thus far.
The company has tested retrofitted Toyota Priuses, Lexus SUVs, and cars built specifically to be driverless. The latter are the versions made with no steering, pedals, or shifting controls. Thus far, Google's fleet has driven autonomously for nearly 2 million miles and counting.
Finally, there may be an advantage to investing in a company with a whole new worldview. As neither a leader in cars nor tech, Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA) has had a rough time breaking into the well-established business of making cars.
However, there's no doubt in anyone's mind that this company is the pioneer of this revolution. Autonomous cars were a background project for years before Tesla came along and made them more than an idea — it made them a reality!
Faulty though the first iterations have been, Tesla's approach to AVs has been a straightforward one. Instead of advertising a car with autonomy built in, it simply updated certain versions of its Model S vehicle and let owners be the beta testers.
Reckless? Yes. But effective? Definitely. Its cars learn from real-world environments rather than from closed-circuit roads and constantly adding data.
This has made it easier for Tesla developers to identify the real problems with the tech. Plus, improvements aren't made after recalls of a vehicle type but instead through automatic software updates that ensure every car with autonomous capabilities gets the same information upgrades.
The recent 8.0 update has made the car significantly safer, says CEO Elon Musk. Rather than relying on camera views only, the cars are going to use more radar sensors to take stock of the car's surroundings and react accordingly.
And, most importantly, all three of these stocks are already planning ahead. Ford, Google, and Tesla have announced that they are going to have fleets of driverless cars for customers to call on demand, even if you don't own one of the company's vehicles.
These three stocks are set to profit the most when people stop owning cars altogether. They're ready to make the shift and take the gains. Are you?