Following a series of bold strokes over the past three weeks, Uber has charted a new path toward the future. Whether this trajectory will take the ridehailing giant into the stratosphere or over a cliff, well, that’s harder to say.
Without knowing all the insider details of Uber’s finances, its profitability, or its burn rate, we could make two equally compelling arguments about the company.
The first: In just a few years, Uber — under CEO Travis Kalanick — has emerged as one of Silicon Valley’s most wildly ambitious startups, with even bigger horizons than most could have guessed. In fact, Uber seems to want to do nothing less than transform every aspect of over-the-road transportation.
The second: Uber under Kalanick has lost its focus, and the company is running in too many directions at once without demonstrating that its core service can become sustainable. Instead, it seems to be desperately grasping at too much, too soon, to justify its sky-high valuation.
And yes, it’s worth noting that these two scenarios are not mutually exclusive.
One thing we do know for sure: Over the next couple of years, Uber will continue to be among the companies in tech delivering the greatest thrill ride as it hurtles toward whatever destiny awaits it. The risks involved in its high-wire act are enormous, making the rewards for success massive and the consequences of failure potentially epic.
In some respects, that’s nothing new for Uber, which is never far from the headlines, with regulatory battles, drivers’ lawsuit, and so on. Even by Uber’s standards, though, the past three weeks seem to have dramatically increased the stakes for the company.
The drama began with news on July 31 that Uber had sold its China operations to bitter rival Didi Chuxing, thus exiting the China market, where it had reportedly lost $2 billion over the past two years. The move was a retreat from a crucial market. But it also prompted some remarkably positive headlines, such as: “In Deal With Didi, Uber Frees Itself to Expand in Other Markets.”
With this rational, defeat is victory, because now Uber has cleared a better path toward an IPO. Being locked out of what is potentially the world’s largest market doesn’t seem to be a concern for investors. We’ll see. Maybe the move will put Uber on the road to financial stability. Or maybe abandoning China will limit its growth in the long run.
But before the meaning of all that becomes clear, we learned last week that Uber is launching the first test of its self-driving cars in Pittsburg later this month. Uber has been famously working on self-driving cars since first partnering with Carnegie Mellon and then poaching its researchers. In an interview, Kalanick said it was imperative to the company’s future that Uber be involved in developing self-driving cars.
“The minute it was clear to us that our friends in Mountain View were going to be getting into the ride-sharing space, we needed to make sure there is an alternative [self-driving car],” Kalanick told Bloomberg. “Because if there is not, we’re not going to have any business.” Developing an autonomous vehicle, he added, “is basically existential for us.”
Perhaps Kalanick is referring to Google’s Waze app offering a carpooling feature? If so, he would seem to be overstating the threat of an app that might be mildly competing in one tiny corner of Uber’s garden.
In the same stroke, Uber announced it had bought Otto, a company focused on building a kit that turns existing long-haul trucks into self-driving trucks. And Uber also revealed a $300 million joint venture with Volvo to develop self-driving cars. Indeed, the cars being used in the Pittsburgh test are Volvos.
While Kalanick and Uber clearly think self-driving cars (and trucks) are critical to the company’s future, that’s not so clear to me.
First, Uber’s most important asset today would seem to be the people who drive for the service. It seems like an enormous risk for the company to be trumpeting the fact that it’s doing its very best to put all of these people out of work. Likely, most Uber drivers are not in it for the long-term anyway. But being highlighted as a liability to be overcome may not be the most inspiring way to the attract drivers Uber will need for years to come.
And does Uber really plan on getting into the business of selling kits to long-haul trucking companies? Trucking is a very specialized industry. And these kits could be against the competitive interest of Volvo, which has its own self-driving long-haul trucks in development (as do most major trucking manufacturers.) So, that scenario is now a bit more complicated.
What is also not clear to me is who will own these pools of self-driving cars. Uber says it doesn’t want to manufacture them. But will it buy them from Volvo and others and put them on the road? If so, it will then have to deal with the messiness and costliness of fleet management. Or will Volvo and others own and operate pools of self-driving cars and contract with Uber?
A third possibility: Consumers buy a self-driving car and then contract it to Uber when they are not using it. Essentially, this is the way Uber works now, minus having a human show up.
In all of these scenarios, there are traditional costs plus new costs. Whoever owns the car will want to make money from allowing it to be used by Uber. Nobody knows the maintenance costs for these cars, or how those may be offset by theoretically improved safety. Is the savings from not having a human behind the wheel enough to offset these other costs?
For me, all of this focus on self-driving cars seems to be introducing an extraordinary variable into Uber’s financial viability. And that doesn’t even take into count the most fundamental questions: Will Uber actually be able to make these vehicles work? And will consumers accept them? Will I have the right to opt in or out of self-driving cars when I hail an Uber? What does this do for the insurance equation? (The latter is something that may largely depend on determining who owns the car and who is liable at the time of use.)
Perhaps the clearest short-term win for Uber is the news that rival Lyft is aggressively trying to sell itself. With Lyft either acquired or out of the picture, Uber could be under less pressure with its core businesses.
That could also buy Uber more time to develop its grand ambitions. And those big ideas are naturally eliciting big cheers from Silicon Valley. Indeed, if Uber eventually dominates all private over-the-road transportation, it would likely become one of the biggest tech companies on the planet.
But its path forward, and the balancing act it is attempting, seems to be growing more complicated and riskier. Add to this the fact that investors impatient for an exit may find such a timetable growing less, rather than more, certain.
For the rest of us — who are just observing and don’t have a stake either way — it’s all tremendously exciting. Fasten your safety belt and hang for one of the wildest rides Silicon Valley has ever seen.
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