How will autonomous car technology generate profits? Among the many different business models – from self-driving mobility services to models centered on data, advertising or entertainment – platform-oriented business models are currently receiving much attention, not the least because Waymo seems to be leaning towards them.
The term “platform” can be understood in different ways: In the automotive context it is usually understood as a car platform where many different models share the same technology under the hood which reduces development costs and allows economies of scale. In a more general, wider interpretation platform business models aim to build a unique competitive position through a complex technology or service which is combined with an ecosystem of users and partners. Ideally the platform exhibits network effects: the larger the ecosystem, the more attractive it becomes to its users and partners and the harder it becomes for competitors to challenge the position.
Waymo’s integrated hard- and software platform
When Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik talks about Waymo’s strategy he emphasizes the integrated hard- and software platform which Waymo is building. Currently this platform is embodied in the ugly white box on top of Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacificas which are occasionally driving around Phoenix. Most of the self-driving hard- and software in the box has been engineered by Waymo/Google: Not just the software, also a novel 360 degree spinning Lidar (with better performance than the Velodyne Lidar, costs reduced by almost an order of magnitude); radar sensors (with better short range detection of stationary objects); the computing platform (developed from scratch in collaboration with Intel); cameras, microphones. Ideally, this box, Waymo’s “better driver”, could be integrated easily into other car models. However, this will always require more work than just adding the box because some sensors will still need to be mounted on the car; more importantly, the car must be ready for self-driving (e.g. redundant safety components) and must be able to communicate with the box by reporting its physical conditions to the box and accepting driving instructions from it.
Can there be much doubt that such a universal driving module would be a highly profitable product? There are many application scenarios (vehicles for commercial use: taxis, buses, trucks, logistics) where self-driving modules would be economically viable for the customer even if priced at very high margins. Startups and established companies should see much opportunity for quickly bringing self-driving vehicles of many kinds onto the market. The technology provider could realize economies of scale while still keeping the total cost for the customer significantly below the alternatives (i.e. where self-driving technology is self-developed or sourced from a variety of vendors).
Platform economics in the consumer car space
Unfortunately, this calculation does not apply to the consumer car space: Consumers are not willing to pay a significant premium for self-driving car technology because they value their own time differently than commercial users of self-driving car technology. In addition, the equation changes for auto makers selling large volumes of vehicles: with a century of experience in managing and cutting costs auto makers will look for every way they can find to slash the price of the self-driving car technology and bring margins down. The larger the sales volume, the higher is the incentive to find other, more cost-effective solutions. Even if they initially agree to source the universal self-driving hard- and software modules, they will work hard to reduce their dependency on it. And they will find many ways to scale back the size of the external self-driving car module: they will want sensors to be integrated into the car – rather than to come with the self-driving platform – and they will want to source them independently. They will clamor to structure and compartmentalize the interface between the self-driving module and their vehicles and they will fight to standardize and take over some of those functions, so that they get control over them. There will be fights over access to the data, over controlling the interface with the user. And it will be hard for the universal self-driving module provider to beat all of those demands back because the OEMs have experience and market knowledge and their car models have special use cases in various segments that the self-driving module provider is not familiar with, does not own and therefore can not easily implement independently. If the provider of the SDC technology platform can not impose lasting, full control over the whole extent of the self-driving platform (prohibiting partial sourcing of components, keeping all modifications to the platform under their own control (even those developed in the context of a particular customer relationship) etc., avoiding any replacement of functionality by the OEM) his power position and margins are likely to deteriorate significantly over time. In the other extreme, the OEM risks losing their established central position in the market to a newcomer who now controls the ‘heart’ of the vehicles. The middle ground is a slippery slope characterized by an uneasy, highly unstable and competitive relationship between both partners where each continually tries to boost their power position to the detriment of the other.
Thus Waymo’s apparent lack of success at finding partners in the auto industry does not come as a big surprise. Why should companies that are used to investing billions for designing a new car model succumb to a company that has invested not much more than a billion dollars (approximately 1.1 bio $ between 2009 and 2015) into self-driving car technology? Shouldn’t they just follow the same path, jump-start their own efforts and ensure that they reduce the gap?
Self-driving software can’t establish a lasting competitive advantage
For anyone who examines the technology and its potential there can be little doubt that many actors will eventually master self-driving car technology. There are many commercial players who have every incentive and sufficient resources to solve the problem. This includes General Motors which has spent 581 million dollars to acquire Cruise Automation and is making a concerted effort to reach manufacturing readiness on the first self-driving car model. There are big European OEMs which are determined to solve the self-driving equation but there are also countries which regard the technology as vital to their economic and military interests. There are investors who understand the economic potential of the technology. Furthermore, although the self-driving car problem is exceptionally hard, it has a ceiling; it will not keep increasing and becoming more and more difficult. Over time, algorithms, simulation environments, tools test data collection and test case generation, hard- and software will become more refined and more easily available. Thus it is very unlikely that a provider of self-driving car technology will be able to establish a lasting advantage over the competition just on the basis of the technology. On the contrary: the time will come where the technology will be mastered by many and be commoditized. The time will come where self-driving car technology will be seen as a natural part of every vehicle, where cars will no longer be differentiated on the basis of their self-driving car technology and where customers will no longer care very much what kind of self-driving car technology is inside. Because safety requirements will be very stringent, vendors of self-driving car technology will have a hard time making the case that their technology is significantly better than the competing products.
Platform models with network effects?
But couldn’t there be a way for the first market entrant to establish a platform position in the wider sense where the technical self-driving car solution forms the base for a self-sustaining ecosystem of customers and partners which exerts a pull on the market and erects a powerful barrier against entry for competitors?
There are several strategies which could be applied toward this end: those who enter the market first and expand quickly can realize economies of scale, which keeps costs down and can discourage competitors by keeping prices low. But keeping prices down means foregoing much of the rents associated with significant productivity increases due to reduced costs of mobility. It is more than questionable whether this would discourage competitors or whether it would be interpreted as a play towards dominance in a lucrative market – an economic signal that might actually entice competitors to redouble their efforts.
Another approach would be to use current dominance in the technology to establish a hard-to-assail business position, a self-growing platform, around the technology. Self-driving car technology requires much more than the car’s hard- and software. There are many legal aspects which require substantial effort. Various service infrastructures need to be established – some to fulfill legal requirements, others out of practical necessity – and might become key parts of the platform ecosystem: California self-driving car regulations already mandate that operators of self-driving cars ensure that high-definition maps are kept up to date and are regularly distributed to the cars. The same regulations describe a remote operations service which assists fully self-driving cars in challenging situations (i.e. a 24/7 remote operations center). Infrastructures are needed for cleaning and maintenance, accident handling, secure over-the-air updates of self-driving car software. The scope of platform services could be extended further to include services for managing fleets of self-driving taxis, trucks and buses as well as associated customer facing services (reservation, payment processing etc.).
Companies which provide the full breadth of such services (or manage access to it) certainly have a favorable competitive position, but it is questionable to what degree this can protect the platform and establish a barrier against entry of competitors. Precursors to most of the platform services described above already exist today and companies exist already that would be willing to extend their services to the self-driving car market. Today many OEMs already operate remote assistance centers (GM OnStar, LexusLink, BWM Assist etc.) which could easily be extended to provide assistance to fully-self driving cars. Several companies are focused on building and maintaining high definition maps (among others Here which was purchased by the German OEMs). Rental car and mobility services companies already have experience with some of the additional services needed and would certainly aim extend their business models to the self-driving car space. Thus it is unlikely that such a Waymo self-driving platform could not be replicated with a determined effort by some of the OEMs or other players.
SDC platforms not similar to operating system or marketplace platforms
The market for self-driving car technology is not similar to other markets where we have seen platform models succeed. This is not like some of the operating system (Windows, Android) which have grown into a platform, where this platform is the base for millions of different applications and uses, where the platform grows because with more users the breadth of applications and uses increase. In contrast, self-driving mobility is a much more specific – and for safety and security reasons – limited application domain where scale effects matter but the diversity and number of applications will be comparatively low. A software platform for self-driving cars can never be as open as Windows or Android. A self-driving software platform will most likely evolve in a way that the platform has a very limited external application programming interface which partners may latch onto. But this also means that competitors which provide their own universal self-driving car modules or platforms should find ways to expose similar interfaces to their partners and these partners could more easily support multiple self-driving car platforms with their services and applications. Thus a self-driving hard- and software is not likely to achieve an operating-system like lock-in effect for its partners and customers.
The market also does not resemble an Airbnb, Ebay or Uber, domain-specific optimized marketplaces which link a large number of product or service providers to a large number of customers and which increase in value and attractiveness with an increasing number of participants, thus quickly erecting barriers to competition. Yes, self-driving car technology can be the basis for establishing mobility services which will tend to rapidly establish a dominant, hard-to-assail position in a region. This mobility-as-a-service business model does have a lock-in effect but this is a very different type of business model than the self-driving hard- and software platform model which we are currently examining.
Thus, the pioneers of self-driving hard- and software can base their business models on viable platform strategies centered around a universal self-driving hard- and software model complemented with associated services and business relationships. Given the economic value that can be realized in many markets and business scenarios with self-driving vehicle technology the business model will initially be very profitable. As in many other markets the pioneers have the potential of establishing a leading and hopefully lasting market position. But their competitive advantage will fall over time as the market becomes commoditized and it will be hard to keep competitors out – unlike the platform models in other markets which enjoy considerable network effects.
The problems with Waymo’s focus on a platform business model
Thus Waymo’s apparent focus on a universal self-driving platform-based business model seems to be questionable. When Waymo decided to shelve the activities related to their self-driving firefly electric two-seaters, they seem to have made a decision against squarely focusing on the mobility services model, the one business model in the self-driving car space that exhibits strong network effects and which would provide a permanent advantage for the first mover.
A side problem of Wamo’s universal self-driving platform is that it does not seem to be well executed. To make their platform truly universal, they would need to expose themselves to many different use cases and ensure that the platform works for cars, trucks, buses, even self-driving machines of different types. Many startups are currently working on products and services in the self-driving space and would be keen to cooperate with a provider of a self-driving car modules but there is no evidence, that Waymo is branching out to them. Companies such as EasyMile, Navya, LocalMotors, truck manufacturers, and many others would be more than willing to jump on the bandwagon and thus ensure that the platform really becomes universal. Waymo would profit from learning about differing requirements in different application scenarios which would necessarily lead to a more customizable structure of the self-driving “box” which Waymo envisions placing on top of a vehicle. That the top box may not be the best idea can easily be seen when we consider the context of trucks where a top box is much less compelling because it would not achieve full 360 degree unobstructed sensor vision. Another worry about Waymo’s approach to a universal driving platform is the reliance on their own sensors. With the current innovation in the automotive sensor market it is not very likely that their sensor suite can remain ahead of the competition for long. A universal self-driving car platform needs the ability to rapidly incorporate new sensors and even new sensor types. Impressive as Waymo’s self-developed sensors may be, there is also the risk of paying less attention to external innovations.
For the market as a whole, Waymo’s detour focusing on a business model based on some incarnation of a universal self-driving hard- and software platform (“the better driver”) may be a positive development. It reduces the risk that one player will dominate the field, has given auto makers time to understand the nature of the challenges better and increase their determination to close the gap. Most auto makers have now understood the dimension of the challenge (although some have difficulties balancing their priorities between autonomous driving and electric vehicles). General Motors is an excellent example of an auto-maker getting up to speed: their acquisition of Cruise Automation is a win-win for both companies and both companies together are not plagued by the competitive stalemate that a collaboration between a universal self-driving module provider and established auto makers would engender. Being the most advanced player, Waymo is likely to profit greatly from its self-driving car technology but a problematic platform-focused commercialization strategy may be giving its competitors some welcome breathing space for catching up.