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GM: Cruise vs. Super Cruise

by Roger Lanctot | Feb 07, 2019

It’s painful and expensive testing fully-automated vehicles with safety drivers and engineers in the front seat. Just ask General Motors.

In yesterday’s earnings call, company Chairwoman and CEO Mary Barra did her best to put a brave face on the efforts of Cruise Automation to perfect automated driving in the interest of launching a commercial mobility service at some now-indeterminate future date. Based on the Cruise operating figures reported by GM – 460,000 miles driven/$600M operating expenses – the division is burning through $1,300 for every mile driven by its semi-automated vehicles.

In spite of that impressive burn, Barra lauded founder Kyle Vogt’s stinginess saying that he spends GM’s, Honda’s and Softbank’s money as if it were his own. Given that Vogt now lives in what is reputedly the most expensive house in San Francisco, I’m not sure that praise isn’t a bit disingenuous.

Cruise now boasts 1,100 employees and GM expects the subsidiary to rack up another $1B in expenses in the current fiscal year - $300M more than last year. The good news is that Cruise’s progress thus far has earned Cruise and GM a reputation as a leader in automated driving. 

That purported progress contrasts with autonomous vehicle operators with Level 3+ shuttle systems already functioning on college and corporate campuses or on predetermined routes in cities all over the world. These operators are generating cash, though many are still taking on investments in the eight or nine figure area – not the 10-figure range now familiar to Cruise.

This is to say nothing of GM’s own Super Cruise development which expects to introduce Level 2+ automated driving functionality (automated lane changing/overtaking) on Cadillac and Buick vehicles before the end of 2019 – with Level 3 on the roadmap. The key difference being that Super Cruise is helping to define the Cadillac and, soon, the Buick branded driving experience. Cruise, in contrast, is a public transportation proposition unlikely to represent an asset owned by a consumer.

Cruise’s only point of integration with GM is its use of the Bolt EV for its test mules. The real problem, for GM, is the scalability of automated driving. GM has yet to define a path to market for the output of Cruise Automation – either hardware or software – for GM’s own vehicles.

GM dealers are not involved in the effort. GM’s OnStar hardware and software is not being used. And Cruise and Super Cruise are very distant cousins - with Cruise focusing on urban operations and Super Cruise tuned to highway driving. 

GM may spin off Cruise and thereby reap a handsome reward for its investment. Such an exit may ultimately be the most rational or the only path forward for Cruise. GM is not a B2C service provider – Cruise’s expected destination – and Cruise has been maintained as an independent subsidiary.

Notable about the GM earnings call yesterday was the failure of GM senior executives to mention Maven, Super Cruise or OnStar. Given the recent departure of Maven’s chief, Julia Steyn, one might have expected some comment on this languishing investment. Super Cruise appears to have no constituency on the financial side of GM or in the investor community.  OnStar remains the red-headed stepchild it has been from its very inception.

GM is the poster child for what plagues the automotive industry which can be summed up in a few bullet points:

  • Connectivity – Car companies have yet to come to terms with the value of vehicle connectivity for customer engagement and retention. The onset of mobility services ought to mark a turning point in how connectivity platforms are leveraged to enable new fleet and transportation alternatives. Instead, car companies are trying to extract revenue from car connections through subscriptions or by reselling vehicle data.
  • Silos – Car companies will never be able to capitalize on – i.e. scale – their brand and intellectual property assets if they don’t break down internal silos. OnStar should be leveraged across fleet and mobility services. GM should never have created a separate brand and hardware for Maven – it should have repositioned OnStar as a mobility brand. Lyft ($500M GM investment) should have been leveraged for dealer loaner cars and integrated with a broader mobility vision.
  • Data – Car companies have a limited comprehension of the scope of available data on their own vehicle networks. That data means far more to the car companies and to dealers than it does to the customer. Customers should somehow be rewarded or compensated for sharing that data – i.e. with subsidized connectivity – in the interest of the OEM being able to better serve customer needs and support independent franchise dealers.
  • Dealers – Car companies need to do more to support dealers. The automobile industry is a B2B business. Dealers represent the key B2C customer facing asset. The customer experience of buying, owning, and maintaining a car is in desperate need of an overhaul.

General Motors keeps shedding employees, markets and vehicles as its market share declines. It applauds the $200M+/Q cash burn underway at Cruise – which promises little in the way of a short-term or a long-term fix for what ails GM or any other auto maker. 

GM is a microcosm for an automotive industry thriving on continued strong global demand but depressed by ominous and expensive requirements from regulators to reduce emissions and highway fatalities. Meanwhile, industry disruptors continue introducing new two- and four-wheel mass transportation alternatives to individually owned cars.

In spite of lost market share, GM had an impressive quarter and its stock is up. But the company, like the industry, is not hitting on all cylinders. It’s time for some self-examination. The fundamental question remains unanswered: Will car makers exclusively sell cars or will they resell transportation services?  The invisibility of Maven and the lost Lyft investment suggest a difficult transition for GM.

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