The Era of the Human-Drive Automobile is over and the auto industry as we know it will vanish within 20 years. Those are just a few of the provocative predictions made by a former vice chairman of General Motors (NYSE: GM).
“Now we are approaching the end of the line for the automobile because travel will be in standardized modules,” Bob Lutz wrote in a November op-ed for Automotive News. In just 20 or 30 years we will live in a very different world will most people will not own cars and human driving on public roads will be illegal.
Traditional automobiles will be banned
“The vehicles, however, will no longer be driven by humans because in 15 to 20 years — at the latest — human-driven vehicles will be legislated off the highways,” Lutz forecast. “Of course, there will be a transition period. Everyone will have five years to get their car off the road or sell it for scrap or trade it on a module.”
This will lead to a major political battle and some ugly class warfare between the small minority of working-class people that wants to keep its clunkers and the elite. A likely outcome is that Sheriff’s deputies will simply move into working-class neighborhoods, confiscate non-autonomous cars, and haul them to the scrapyards.
Another will be that the working-class gearheads keep driving on the crumbling highways while everybody else is riding in comfort in the Hyperloop pods. Members of some religious and other minorities might be allowed to keep their cars – in the way the Amish are allowed to drive buggies today.
The manual driving cars might be restricted to side roads. Some jurisdictions might preserve stretches of highway as tourist attractions for speed freaks and gearheads that want to drive.
Big Business will force Self-Driving cars on the Public
Lutz believes that accident rates will lead to the change and that individuals will have very little say in the matter. Instead, he thinks big business will transition to self-driving vehicles and force the rest of us to go along.
A CNBC question about people that refuse to buy autonomous vehicles invoked a very provocative response from Lutz. He thinks that there will be little the public can do to stop the autonomous vehicle revolution.
“My reply was that we don’t need the public acceptance of autonomous vehicles at first,” Lutz said. “All we need is acceptance by the big fleets: Uber, Lyft, FedEx, UPS, the U.S. Postal Service, utility companies, delivery services.”
Simple economics will drive the change because automakers will cater to their biggest customers. Many regular cars will disappear because parts and maintenance for them will no longer be available.
Fleet Owners are the Future of Autos
“These fleet owners will account for several million vehicles a year,” Lutz wrote. “Every few months they will order 100,000 low-end modules; 100,000 medium and 100,000 high-end. The low-cost provider that delivers the specification will get the business.”
The fleet owners will take over the auto industry and change it beyond recognition, Lutz predicted. He also offered investors an interesting new strategy for auto-investing in the near future.
“The value is going to be captured by the companies with the fully autonomous fleets,” Lutz said. “The manufacturers of the modules will be much like Nokia — basically building handsets. But that’s not where the value is going to be in the future.”
He also predicted that today’s vehicle brands will disappear. Instead, the users will define the car and brand it. He also predicted that the way cars are built and designed and built will change drastically.
Also driving the revolution will be the fact that using Uber, GM’s Maven, Lyft, BMW Reachnow, or Waymo will be far cheaper than owning a car. It will cost $50 or $100 a month to participate in Maven or Reachnow, and several hundred dollars a month to buy or lease a car. The cost of ridesharing will be even less for those only need a car occasionally; such as a person who makes one drive a week.
Most people will vote with their pocketbooks, they will choose several hundred dollars extra cash a month over the “freedom” of owning an auto. The private automobile will disappear for the same reason great-grandfather sold his horse to the glue factory – the new alternative will be far cheaper.
Owning a car or a tractor was simply far cheaper and easier than carrying for a horse. The horse had to be fed each day; even if it did not move, the car or tractor only needs fuel when it runs.
The Death of Performance
“These modules won’t be branded Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota,” Lutz forecast. “They’ll be branded Uber or Lyft or who-ever else is competing in the market.”
That will lead to a world that speed freaks and gearheads will hate. Even though road trips and commutes will be a lot more fun and relaxing for the rest of us.
“But the performance will be the same for all because nobody will be passing anybody else on the highway,” Lutz said. “But the performance will be the same for all because nobody will be passing anybody else on the highway.”
Passengers in the modules will enjoy such amenities as refrigerators, TVs, computers, video games, and full internet connectivity. Even modules that contain a bar will be fine because drinking and driving will no longer be an issue.
Most people will prefer sleeping, exercising, reading a book, watching TV, homework, catching up on email or sales calls, playing video games, or doing their hobbies to driving anyway. The prospect of an extra hour for work and leisure each day will easily persuade most people to trade in their car for a module.
Styling will disappear because the modules will need to be loaded into transportation systems like high-speed rail or the Hyperloop. This means Arrivo which is designed as a Hyperloop for cars might be for the future.
Dealers and Auto Brands will disappear
Performance and styling will not be the only thing that vanishes, most car dealers will disappear.
Lutz’s calculation is that the auto industry will remain about the same for 10 or 15 but dealers and traditional automakers will slowly disappear. Instead, carmakers will become like Foxxcon building the equipment used by transportation service providers like Uber and Lyft.
Just as Foxconn builds phones for Apple and Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG). It is no coincidence that Apple is thinking of entering the auto business, and Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL) owns Waymo.
The auto retailers will be those selling specialized vehicles and collector cars. The only real automakers would be a few specialist companies building race cars and off-road vehicles. He predicted those companies will be a cottage industry similar to Britain’s Morgan Motor Company.
Driving only for the Rich
Even those vehicles will have to be driven at special facilities where driving will only be for fun. Lutz predicted that driving will be for the rich, wealthy families will maintain a garage much as some of today’s rich maintain a stable of horses.
To drive wealthy people will join “country clubs for cars” that have special tracks and garages. There might also be driving resorts and public driving tracks for the rest of us. A select group of people will have a lifestyle devoted to “Automotive Sport,” something akin to the old-fashioned “horsey set.”
“It will be the well-to-do, to the amazement of all their friends, who still know how to drive and who will teach their kids how to drive,” Lutz wrote. “It is going to be an elitist thing.”
The Auto Industry and Auto Dealers are Doomed
Auto investors might be well advised to sell their Ford (NYSE: F) or Toyota (NYSE: TMC) stock and buy Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL) or NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA) instead.
Another good buy will be Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.B) which is likely to gobble up auto manufacturers as their stock gets cheap. Warren Buffett already owns a stake in GM. General Motors reportedly makes up 1.2% of Berkshire Hathaway’s (NYSE: BRK.A) holdings.
Both the automobile; and the auto industry as we know it, will be changed behind recognition by autonomous vehicles. That makes self-driving vehicles a far more disruptive technology than most of us realized.
That’s a surprising admission from a man who held senior executive positions at Ford, Chrysler, BMW, and Opel and worked as head of product development at GM. If Lutz is right, the manually-operated automobile might one-day become as rare a curiosity as a horse and buggy is today.