Tuesday, May 14, 2019

What if self-driving cars will actually hurt Uber and Lyft?

Two reasons for me to be nervous about this argument: first, it is very much in the minority and second, it puts position of defending the business logic of Elon Musk, at least in relative terms.

Of course, the level of autonomy required for viable driverless taxis is still a long ways away. That's not to say that AVs won't start having a big impact on transportation before then (my money's on long-haul trucking), but  go anywhere with no human on board functionality still faces big challenges.

That said, if you could get the technology safe enough and reliable enough, and you put aside Musk's typically exaggerated promises (the cars will not be paying for themselves in a year and a half), the basic idea of setting up a ride share company using privately owned Teslas is not necessarily a bad one.

By comparison, the argument, now absolutely entrenched in conventional wisdom, that Uber and Lyft will greatly benefit from the advent of fully autonomous cars continues to strike me as deeply flawed.

Here's an example. Imagine you own one of two delivery services in a town. Both you and your competitor have roughly the same number of trucks but you have invested a great deal of money upgrading and making sure that your vehicles are as energy-efficient as possible. So far, the cost of the upgrade has been balanced out by your savings on diesel so that you are able to charge roughly the same rate as your competitor. A drop in fuel prices will reduce your operating cost. Normally that would be a good thing, but the cost for your competitor will drop by even more so that he will be able to undercut you on prices.

The Uber business model is based on the fact that there are a huge number of underemployed people who own underutilized cars (virtually all private vehicles are underutilized). Since car and driver are already just more or less sitting there most of the time, Uber is able to offer rides at a rate that would not otherwise be sufficient to cover all the assorted cost.

(Technically Uber doesn't offer the rides, but you get my drift.)

{And, yes, there are people who buy cars just to drive for Uber. There are also people who buy commemorative plates as a hedge against inflation.}

If you take drivers out of the equation, suddenly it becomes unclear what advantage Uber has over taxicab companies, car rental services, car dealerships or any business that maintains a large fleet of cars. Let's consider the Hertz example here in Southern California. Currently you have locations spread around LA and Orange counties, with each lot having to maintain a minimum stock. With truly driverless cars, you can get awfully close to 100% utilization for much of the day. Just have your extra vehicles prowl for fares and make deliveries, then send them to whatever location needs them next. Add to that maintenance facilities, purchasing power, a late model fleet and countless economies of scale.

You can imagine similar scenarios for any number of other businesses and in each of those scenarios, Uber and Lyft get screwed over by large, new, well-positioned competitors.

All of this leads us to the dirty little secret of the ride sharing industry. Though it was made possible by technological innovation (specifically the smart phone), the stability of the business model depends not on sustained disruption and transformation but on things remaining basically the same.


  1. Most companies base their business on exploiting unorganized labor. Uber and Lyft base their business on exploiting unorganized capital. Unlike WeWork which owns buildings and holds long term leases on capital assets, Uber, Lyft, AirBnB and hedge funds are based on other people owning assets and wanting to make money on them. Moving from OPA, other people's automobiles, to owning and operating your own fleet is a major change in business model.

    1. I'd go even further. It's closer to starting an entirely new business. It's still amazing how the press was willing to accept the claim of "we'll save the company with an entirely new untested business model that relies on non-existent technology and offers none of the competitive advantages of our current model"