New Car Technologies and their Persistently Bullish Prospects

Let’s dip back a few years for a quick history lesson. It’s 2010, and various business prognosticators are confidently predicting that the number of electric cars sold in the United States in 2013 will be ~200,000 vehicles.

And in 2015, electric auto sales will reach ~280,000 units.

What really happened?

In 2013 total electric car sales in the United States were fewer than 97,000.  In 2015, the figure was higher – all of 119,000 units.

It’s worse than even these statistics show. The auto industry’s own expert predictions were off by miles.  In 2011, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn predicted that his company would have more than 1.5 million Renault-Nissan electric vehicles on the road.

That forecast turned out to be about 80% too high.

More recent sales forecasts for electric cars are much more realistic. As has become quite clear, many consumers aren’t particularly interested in shifting to a newer technology of automobile if they have to pay substantially more for the technology up-front – despite the promise of lower vehicle operating expenses over time.

Even more telling, a recent McKinsey survey found that of today’s electric car owners, only about half of respondents indicated that they would purchase one again. Ouch.

So, what we now have are projections that electric vehicles won’t reach 4% of the U.S. automotive market until 2023 at the earliest. That’s about a decade later than those first forecasts envisioned reaching that penetration level.

Is it all that surprising, actually? If we’re being honest, we have to acknowledge that the most lucrative markets for electric vehicles are in highly prosperous, population-dense urban areas with strict gasoline emissions standards – the very definition of a “limited market” (think San Francisco or Boston).

Thinking about the next technological advancement in this sector, the industry’s newest “bright shiny thing” is self-driving cars – also referred to as the classier-sounding “autonomous vehicle.” But it appears that this sector may be facing similar dynamics that made electric vehicles the “fizzled sizzle” they turned out to be.

Consider the challenges that autonomous vehicles face that threaten to dampen marketplace acceptance of these products – at least in the short- and medium-term:

  • The regulatory and legal ramifications of autonomous vehicles are even more daunting than those affecting electric cars. For starters, try assigning liability for car crashes.
  • Autonomous vehicles require sophisticated mapping and data analytics to operate properly. The United States is a big country. Put those two factors together and it’s easy to see what kind of a challenge it will be to get these vehicles on the road in any major way.
  • How about resistance from powerful groups that have a vested interest in the status quo? Of the ~3.5 million commercial truck drivers in the United States, I wonder how many are in favor of self-driving vehicles?

Not every new technology operates in a similar environment, and for this reason some new-fangled products don’t have such a long gestation and ramp-up period.  Take the smartphone, which took all of ten years to go from “what’s that?” to “who doesn’t own one?”

But there’s quite a difference, actually.  Smartphones were a sea change from what people typically considered a mobile phone, with oodles of added utility and capabilities that were never even part of the equation before.

By contrast, consumers know what it’s like to have a car, and even self-driving cars won’t be doing anything particularly “new.” Just doing it differently.

At this juncture, McKinsey is predicting that autonomous cars will reach ~15% of U.S. automobile sales by the year 2030.

Maybe that’s correct … maybe not. But my guess is, if McKinsey’s prediction turns out to be off, it’ll be because it was too robust.

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