Navigant Research Blog

Autonomous Vehicles as Both a Sustaining and Disruptive Innovation

Sam Abuelsamid — December 9, 2016

Electric Vehicle 2While listening to a recent episode of the Exponent podcast, co-hosts Ben Thompson and James Allworth had a vibrant discussion on one of their regular topics: sustaining versus disruptive innovation. The topic was in the context of whether Apple should acquire Netflix, but as the hosts’ conversations often do, it got me thinking about the auto industry. With self-driving vehicles, transportation is on the precipice of a dramatic change that many argue will be exceptionally disruptive. I’d like to take a slightly contrarian view by arguing that autonomous technology will be sustaining to parts of the auto industry and disruptive in ways that many in the tech industry may be missing.

Sustaining vs. Disruptive

Disruption is an often abused word in the world of technology, but as defined by Harvard University’s Clayton Christensen, it boils down to innovations that create new markets and value networks and eventually displace existing market leaders. Sustaining innovations evolve existing markets and improve value.

An example of the latter is the way that manufacturing automation improved productivity and quality in the way cars are built over the past several decades. However, as in any complex analysis, these things are never simply binary. While new manufacturing technology was sustaining for automakers, it was extremely disruptive to the people that worked in their factories. Similarly, any argument that autonomous vehicles will be purely disruptive of the auto industry is a vast oversimplification. If automakers had followed the path of Nokia in the mobile phone business and ignored the threat posed by Apple when it introduced the iPhone in 2007, incumbent automakers would be facing extinction in the face of autonomy.

Instead, I would argue autonomy will instead be sustaining for many (although probably not all) automakers. Someone will need to build these vehicles regardless of whether they are piloted by computers or humans, and the companies that already have design, engineering, and manufacturing expertise are well-positioned to do so.

Just as other real-world examples are rarely black and white, there will be disruption from the autonomous vehicle. Most obviously it will affect those that make a living from driving, whether by taxi, bus, or truck—society will have to address this employment displacement in the next decade.

Retail Side

Perhaps the less anticipated and more impactful disruption is faced by the retail side of the auto industry. There are nearly 17,000 franchised car dealers in the United States currently selling about 17.5 million vehicles a year with more than 1 million employees. If transportation shifts as expected over the next several decades (i.e., from an individual ownership model to on-demand autonomous mobility services), the business of these retailers will evaporate. It won’t be overnight, but it will almost inevitably happen.

However, someone still needs to own these vehicles, right? Sure, but unlike the Silicon Valley investors that pumped Uber’s valuation to more than $60 billion, I doubt it will be standalone ride-hailing companies. I’m increasingly of the opinion that mobility services will be provided by the manufacturers themselves, leveraging their existing expertise in building, logistics, and financing along with strategic investments in the software platforms needed to connect people with rides.

Disruption by its nature takes people by surprise. The self-driving car will be both sustaining and disruptive, and probably not in the obvious ways.

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