It's only been a few years since Uber and Lyft and the like turned the taxi industry on its head by offering smartphone-hailed rides with anyone who wanted to sign up to be a driver. Now the industry looks like it may be disrupted again: The advent of autonomous taxis and the wave of investment by automakers in car-sharing fleets could flip the economics of ride-hailing.
"Uber has to undergo a transition as large as OEMs," said James Hodgson, an analyst with ABI Research. In some aspects, automakers may be in a better position to dominate the market of robo-taxis -- if the companies act quickly.
Carmakers such as General Motors, Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen and Ford have all placed strategic bets on becoming mobility pro-viders, a catch-all term for a hodgepodge of car-sharing services that function in different ways. These companies are taking a variety of approaches to mobility services but are positioning themselves to operate and own majority holdings in companies that deal directly with customers who use these mobility services, much like Uber does. Other carmakers are merely providing the vehicles that car-sharing companies offer to drivers.
"There's a dividing line emerging between those who are determined to build those services themselves and those who are fine to resign themselves to being a supplier," Hodgson said.
In an era of autonomous cars, these differing services will converge to offer users a choice between driving and being driven. This will put carmakers in direct competition with Uber, whose CEO Travis Kalanick last year described its mission to develop self-driving software as "existential" to the company's survival.
Uber has distinct advantages in global brand dominance, years of data on consumer behavior and an appetite to swallow deep losses. But the tech firm built its business on rapid expansion and incentivizing regular people to use their personal vehicles as taxis, and has little experience owning and maintaining fleets of autonomous vehicles.