Softbank & Uber – Sellers’ paradise

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At around $70bn, there should be plenty of sellers.

  • Uber has approved a deal where SoftBank will lead a $1bn fund raising and at the same time buy around $9bn from existing shareholders which should give SoftBank a stake in Uber of around 14%.
  • Softbank is investing at a valuation of $70bn and while the purchase of existing shares will be done at a lower valuation, I think that it will have to be pretty close to the price being paid for primary shares to keep sellers happy.
  • The deal also goes hand in hand with agreements to restructure Uber’s corporate governance in a bid to draw a line under the disastrous 2017 that Uber has had.
  • This is badly needed as management turnover, bad press, unhappy drivers and a series of scandals has led to the company focusing on anything but its core business in 2017.
  • This has resulted in a meaningful deterioration of its market position and outlook in my opinion.
    • First, in its home market, lack of focus has led to Lyft being able to confidently expect to improve its market share to 33% from 20% at the beginning of the year.
    • This leaves Uber on 66% which based on my rule of thumb for network based businesses, is enough to eventually win the market, but its margin for error has been substantially reduced.
    • This rule of thumb states that a company that relies on the network must have at least 60% market share or be at least double the size of its nearest rivals to begin really making profit.
    • Coming into 2017, Uber had a 20% cushion before Lyft could really start causing it some problems, but this cushion has now been reduced to just 6%.
    • Furthermore, with Google is now backing Lyft as the best way for it to get its self-driving technology (Waymo) to market, this gives Lyft much deeper pockets than it had previously.
    • Second, following its ignominious exit from China (see here), Uber has also lost the Russian market to Yandex (see here).
    • It is increasingly looking like Uber will end up with USA and a host of smaller markets where there has been no particularly strong local competitor.
    • India is still in play and I think could be a source of conflict as when this deal closes, SoftBank will have a meaningful position in both Indian rivals (Ola (see here) and Uber).
    • Third, RFM research concluded that of all the autonomous driving technologies being tested, Uber’s is the worst (see here) where Google’s offering is 5,000x better.
    • Autonomous driving will be critical for the ride sharing companies as when the supply side of their marketplaces disappears, they will become service companies or fleet operators.
    • At that time the quality of their autonomous driving technologies will be a major factor in determining market share and profitability.
    • With Lyft going with market leader Waymo. Uber has everything to do.
  • The net result of this series of misfortunes and own goals is that the outlook for Uber has deteriorated materially over the long-term.
  • I think Uber could easily lose every large market that it is trying for resulting in it ending up being pretty much US only ad even here Lyft is looking increasingly threatening.
  • On this basis, I think that a valuation of $70bn is a big stretch
  • Consequently, if SoftBank is offering around $70bn for secondary shares, I think that there will be plenty of supply as I think many people now have a materially lower valuation in mind.

Tokyo Motor Show – Not invented here.

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Existential challenge ahead.

  • The star of the Tokyo Motor Show is an electric sports vehicle designed by Toyota which has at its heart an assistant that I think neither Honda nor any other automaker has any chance of ever creating themselves.
  • The best hope is for automakers to licence or buy an assistant from elsewhere meaning that it is unlikely to provide them with an exclusive, differentiating product.
  • The problem is that digital assistants require a high level of AI in order to function properly which is a skill that none of the automakers, not even Tesla, posses.
  • RFM has defines three stages of speech recognition (see here):
    • First: High word accuracy.
    • This has largely been achieved by most speech recognition systems, but it is one thing to know what the user said but quite another to know what he meant.
    • Second: understanding what it is the user is asking for regardless of word order or manner of speech.
    • Third: the ability to understand context and circumstance.
    • I think that it is quite clear that not until machine understanding reaches this third stage that voice can have any hope of providing a user interface that would obviate the use of a screen and be really useful in a vehicle.
    • The two leaders in this space (Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa) both rely heavily on screens and both have products with screens either in the market or in development.
  • This is particularly relevant in the automotive industry where for the foreseeable future, the driver will have to have both his hands and his eyes occupied elsewhere.
  • Furthermore, it is clear that all of the user interfaces designed by the car makers, Apple and Google are not appropriate for use in the vehicle.
  • This is a main reason why I think that users still predominantly use their smartphones for digital services in the vehicle meaning that the best infotainment unit is still the one in the driver’s pocket.
  • In my opinion this represents a very serious risk for the car makers long-term.
  • This is because all of the value-added services that they are hoping to provide are likely to be delivered via embedded systems in the infotainment unit.
  • Consequently, unless the vehicle’s embedded infotainment unit can compete effectively with the smartphone, there is a real risk that all of their digital aspirations will come to naught.
  • In this case, the net result is likely to be the big ecosystems taking over the digital experience in the automobile causing the automakers to become little more than handsets on wheels.
  • This is a bleak outlook because I think that the automakers badly need revenue from digital services to help offset the weakness in their traditional business likely to be caused by the migration to electric vehicles.
  • Failure is not an option for those that wish to survive.

Ola vs. Uber – Turntable

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Ola has one chance to turn the tables on Uber.

  • Ola has secured $2bn in funding from Softbank and Tencent which it must immediately put to good work if it is to wrest the advantage from Uber in India.
  • I think that this is an excellent time for Ola to receive a large cash injection as it is almost neck and neck with Uber in India and has the advantage of focus while Uber fights endless fires elsewhere.
  • This advantage will not last for ever and if Ola can push its share back to 60% it will stand a chance of doing to Uber what Didi in China and Yandex in Russia have done before it.
  • Car hailing is one of the best examples of a networked economy and, just like classifieds, it is extremely difficult to make money until one of two criteria are met:
    • First: one must have at least 60% market share or
    • Second: one must have double the market share of the next largest player.
  • Data in terms of market share has been somewhat unreliable but it looks as if Ola has been able to cede only a small amount of market share in the last 12 months.
  • Research by KalaGato Pte shows that Ola’s share in July was around 44% with Uber on 50% with everyone else fighting for the scraps.
  • In October, Ola’s market share was around 50% (see here) and it looked to me like Ola would only survive with state intervention.
  • During March 2017 Ola’s rides per customer stood at 2.95 while Uber were 4.38 with 40.9% of Uber customers paying less than Rs100 per ride while only 31.4% of Ola’s customers paying less than Rs100.
  • While not definitive, this data indicates that Uber has been gaining share through aggressive pricing and the good user experience offered by the app.
  • However, I think that Uber’s troubles have had a massive ripple effect right the way through the organisation resulting in the eye coming off the ball.
  • It is this that has given Lyft a new lease of life in USA and now offers the same chance to Ola.
  • This turmoil has only intensified with Transport for London denying Uber a licence to operate necessitating even more diversion of attention away from India.
  • This $2bn investment and Uber’s focus elsewhere gives Ola a chance to halt its recent losses and turn them around.
  • What it has to do appears to be quite clear:
    • First: cut prices and
    • Second: improve the usability of its app and service.
  • If Ola can get back to 60% share then it will have reached the hallowed status at which it will be able to generate cash and Uber will not.
  • It is at that point it will be in a position (as long as it holds onto 60%+) to eject Uber from India (probably through acquisition) but not before.
  • Now it all comes down to Ola management’s ability to execute and upon this, everything depends.

Automotive Ecosystem – Dyson C5?

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Not convinced Dyson has what it takes.

  • Vacuum cleaner maker Dyson has announced that it will be producing an electric vehicle that has more hallmarks of the Sinclair C5 than the Model S.
  • Dyson intends to produce a fully electric vehicle by 2020 which will feature:
    • First: Solid state batteries. This is one of the holy grails for battery technology as lithium batteries can be extremely dangerous when exposed to physical trauma, overcharging or excess heat.
    • This has been a focus of Dyson for some time but whether it has cracked this thorny problem remains to be seen.
    • Second: Electric motors. Given Dyson’s history with household products, there would seem to be a natural progression into electric vehicles.
    • Third: Premium price. Dyson is sticking to what it knows in positioning its vehicle at the high end but in this segment, it will face fearsome competition.
  • I think that there are two critical attributes that will be required to succeed in a world of electric vehicles and Dyson has neither:
    • Automotive experience. As Apple has found (see here), making cars is extremely difficult and requires a lot of upfront investment.
    • Dyson plans to invest $2.6bn in developing its vehicle which is not that much compared to everyone else investing in this space.
    • Consequently, it has a lot to learn and not much money to invest which I think will leave it wanting.
    • Digital data. RFM research (see here) has concluded that understanding the importance of data generation in vehicle is likely to be critical for the success of the OEMs in the long-run.
    • Players such as Google, Apple, HERE and TomTom are pushing hard in this space with OEMs such as Tesla and BMW already working hard to improve their differentiation using sensor data.
    • Dyson’s current product line up does not have any data collection nor does the company have any real experience with regard to using data to make its customer experience better.
    • I see Dyson as firmly in the ship and forget category rather than the ship and remember that I think is essential going forward.
  • Furthermore, most of the money in the automotive industry at the moment is made through the financing of vehicles and here Dyson also has no experience.
  • Consequently, I think that Dyson is pinning its hopes on differentiating via its battery.
  • Range anxiety and charging are two of the biggest limitations of electric vehicles today and if Dyson can offer differentiation by fixing either of these two problems it may have a chance.
  • That being said, I think that the secret to solving these problems most quickly lies in making lithium batteries safer rather than using another substrate entirely.
  • According to Amionx 50-80% of the weight of an electric car battery is made up of packaging to protect the battery against the kind of trauma that will cause a battery fire.
  • If the battery can be made resistant to physical trauma, overcharging and heat then the weight of the package can be substantially reduced.
  • This would enable a much higher capacity battery to be used for the same weight giving a big increase in range.
  • My research leads me to believe that this solution is going to come before solid state batteries meaning that range will not be something with which Dyson will be able to differentiate.
  • Consequently, I am struggling to see how Dyson will compete effectively in this market as it lacks almost all of the core competences that I think are required.
  • Furthermore, it will be up against the biggest automakers which are already shipping in big volumes as well as the biggest ecosystems who have tens of billions of dollars to invest.
  • It has been 32 years since arguably the biggest disaster in British innovation (Sinclair C5) but perhaps we are due for an upgrade.

Google Auto – Lyft to market

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Google and Lyft can really help each other.  

  • An investment in Lyft makes a lot of sense given that Waymo’s autonomous driving offering is likely to face a lot of problems getting into production vehicles.
  • Furthermore, with the possibility of autonomous driving being central to its future, Lyft badly needs a solution and the partnership with Waymo puts it in pole position.
  • Google is considering putting up to $1bn into Lyft in a move that would see it become one of Lyft’s biggest shareholders at a crucial time.
  • This is because I see Lyft as still being subscale compared to Uber and when it comes to market places that can be fatal.
  • My rule of thumb for market places is that for money to be made, one player needs to have 60% share or be twice the size of its nearest competitor.
  • In the US, Uber has already achieved this hallowed status and in theory should be able to crush Lyft simply by applying sustained competitive pressure until Lyft runs out of money.
  • However, the current run of bad publicity and executive turmoil has meant that Uber’s eye has not been on the ball and has allowed Lyft to gain some share.
  • Furthermore, the problem that all the ride hailing companies face is that if all cars become autonomous, then their current businesses become obsolete as, while there will be riders, there will be no drivers.
  • In effect one half of their market place will have evaporated meaning that they will become simply a purveyor of a service that requires best in class robot drivers.
  • This is why they must have an autonomous offering as it will give them the ability to migrate from human to robot drivers as the technology comes to market.
  • However, while I see a freight train of electric vehicles coming to market (see here), I think it will be a very long time before autonomy really arrives giving the ride hailing companies plenty of time to fix their shortcomings.
  • From Google’s perspective, I think that it needs to get its ducks in a row now because the advantage it has over its competitors is now as great as it is ever likely to be (see here).
  • It is ahead now but because the technology is likely to be ready before the market is, competitors will have time to catch up meaning that there is likely to be plenty of choice when crunch time comes.
  • By cementing a deal and now an investment in Lyft, Google is giving itself a route to market which the vehicle makers have largely declined to provide.
  • Google’s self-driving solution is by far the best available today but without a way to deploy it in the market, it is useless.
  • This is why an investment in Lyft makes a lot of sense as Uber has already declined to play.

Electric Vehicles – Extinction level event.

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EVs could trigger a huge decline in vehicle demand.

  • Vehicle makers are queuing up to announce their commitment to electric vehicles (EVs) but at the same they may be cheering for their own demise.
  • Volvo began it by committing to an EV line-up in 2019 followed by Chinese plans to ban all sales of fossil fuel vehicles and now Mercedes-Benz will offer a hybrid or electric version of its entire line-up by 2022.
  • Unlike the optimists, I do not see EVs as the beginning of a new golden age for the vehicle makers but instead the trigger for a potential collapse in demand from which most of them will never recover.
  • RFM research (see here) has concluded that owning an EV could easily halve the amount of money that the consumer spends on private transportation.
  • This is because:
    • First: EVs should last much longer than internal combustion vehicles allowing them to travel 2-5x more miles than vehicles that use fuel before they need to be replaced.
    • Assuming that EVs cost the same, they will be much cheaper to own when considering the cost to drive each mile.
    • Second: EVs have many fewer moving parts than internal combustion vehicles meaning that there is much less to go wrong and hence they will be cheaper to maintain.
  • Most vehicles are driven to destruction meaning that assuming total miles driven does not increase, a vehicle market that is 100% EVs will be just 20%-50% of the size of the same market with internal combustion vehicles.
  • In USA, this means a market of 3.4m – 8.5m light passenger vehicles compared to the 17m that are sold today.
  • It is important to note that these estimates are extremely sensitive to small changes in long-term assumptions meaning that these forecasts are purely an indication of a scenario for which I think all players should be prepared.
  • For the large, bureaucratic and slow vehicle makers (almost all of them), this represents an existential change in the market that most of them will not survive.
  • What is likely to then happen is a massive consolidation of the global market in to 5 or 6 vehicle makers down from the 26 or so that there are today.
  • However, it is not all doom and gloom as from this shift, substantial opportunities are likely to emerge.
  • EVs are all likely to be connected to the cloud with a myriad of sensors detecting events within the vehicle and its immediate vicinity.
  • This data should enable a series of highly valuable services for which users will be willing to either pay for or consume advertising.
  • As it stands today, the OEMs have a lock on this data and as long as they don’t let it slip to Google or one of the other digital ecosystems, they should be able to make a good return from it.
  • I very much doubt that it would make up for the revenue lost from lower vehicle demand but it will be much higher margin than selling vehicles which should soften the blow.
  • Of the vehicle makers, I continue to think that BMW and Tesla have the best chances of survival but I think even BMW might struggle to survive a decline in demand of this scale.

Google Auto – Greek gift pt. III.

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Waymo’s time is now.

  • Google’s self-driving division, Waymo, is currently by far the best option for anyone looking for an autonomous driving offering with two caveats:
    • First: It is likely to come at a heavy price in terms of data and long-term differentiation
    • Second: By the time autonomous driving is critical, many of the other solutions may have caught up.
  • Waymo is currently on a charm offensive trying to assuage the fears of automakers who have seen what Google has done to the smartphone industry and are fearful that the same could happen to them.
  • One of the few assets that car makers are likely to have left as the world moves to electric vehicles (EVs) is the sensor data that these vehicles generate.
  • RFM research has concluded that combining Digital Life data generated by the smartphone with the sensor data gives scope for substantial revenues to be generated (see here).
  • There is no doubt that Waymo is currently by far the best at autonomous driving but in order to work, the system has to have full access to the entire vehicle.
  • For any vehicle maker deploying Waymo, this means opening up the entire vehicle to Google thereby putting at risk the only real differentiating asset these companies are likely to have in the long-term.
  • Android Auto has proven to be ineffectual because while it displays apps running on the smartphone on the infotainment unit screen, it has no access to any of the sensor data that the vehicle generates.
  • This is why the announcement by Audi and Volvo at Google i/o that they will deploy full Android in their head units is so significant.
  • By using Android instead of their own proprietary code, they may be letting Google gain access to the sensor data over which I think they must maintain control.
  • Google did announce that the code will be “manufacturer tweaked” Android which I hope for their sake means that all access to the sensor data remains under the vehicle manufacturer’s tight control.
  • Waymo’s argument is that vehicle makers make no money on cars that have already been shipped and that with Google / Waymo there would be some kind of revenue sharing deal.
  • Waymo has not said how much it is willing to give away but should it become dominant, I am pretty sure that the share will be very small.
  • The good news for vehicle makers is that I don’t think that they need to rush into any alliances for self-driving systems just yet.
  • This is because I still think that the technology will be mature long before the market is ready to accept it which gives those that are far behind Waymo today a lot of time to catch-up.
  • Consequently, by the time that autonomous driving becomes a vehicular requirement, I think that the playing field will be far more even with a good array of choices that do not necessarily include the sharing of sensor data.
  • I suspect that this is why Waymo is pushing its wares now as its chances of getting automakers to give Google access to their sensor data are at it their peak.
  • Hence, I think vehicle makers should wait before making a deal for autonomy that they will not need for many years.

Google vs. HERE – Perfect parking

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HERE has more potential but needs to execute.

  • Google is upping the ante in the race to provide value-added services on top of digital maps, but with the right execution, HERE should be able to provide a much better service.
  • In January Google launched its parking difficulty icon on Android Maps which give the user an idea of how difficult it will be to park at the user’s destination.
  • This was initially launched in 25 US cities but this has been: 1) extended to another 25 locations (Canada, Europe and Brazil), and 2) expanded to offer parking suggestions in the area.
  • This service is based on historical parking data as well as data gathered from smartphones using Google services within a certain location to ascertain how busy that location is.
  • This is similar to the popular times and visit duration data that Google provides for businesses and will give the user an idea of how long he should expect to spend looking for a place to park.
  • While this will be a useful addition to Google Maps, I think that HERE should be able to offer a service that is vastly superior.
  • This is for two reasons:
    • First, data quality: While Google’s service is based on estimates and AI, HERE’s service should be based on much more specific data.
    • This is because HERE has access to automotive sensor data while Google does not.
    • For example, when HERE’s location platform detects an ignition start, it can be almost certain that the space occupied by that vehicle is about to be vacated.
    • It will also know from ignition switch-off which spaces are occupied and which are not.
    • This gives it a highly accurate, real time picture of the parking environment meaning that it’s HERE ON-Street Parking service should be much more accurate than Google.
    • Second, positioning. Vehicle positioning is often much more accurate than that offered by mobile phones as the antennas are larger and are almost always open to the sky.
    • This means that HERE should have a more accurate real-time picture of exactly where the devices connected to its platform are.
    • Combining this with the highly granular data it gets directly from the vehicle, should allow HERE to provide its users with a more accurate and relevant parking service than Google Maps.
  • This is exactly the kind of differentiation that HERE needs to win the attention of users but there are caveats.
  • Google is present on almost every smartphone in the market (except China) meaning that although its data set is much less accurate, it has a much fuller picture of the environment.
  • HERE by comparison is at a very early stage in getting devices connected to its location platform meaning that its lacks the visibility of the environment to make its service work really well.
  • This allows Google to offer a workable service today, while HERE is still at the stage of building out its network of data collecting devices.
  • Furthermore, should Google manage to get access to the sensor data generated by vehicles (Android Auto offers no access), then HERE’s key advantage will be lost.
  • However, most automakers have recognised that Google represents a meaningful long-term threat and are keen to keep their sensor data to themselves.
  • Google has done a deal with Volvo and Audi but whether it has managed to gain access to sensor data is still unclear.
  • The net result is that HERE has an opportunity to roll-out a much better service and win over users, but it needs to quickly achieve scale or risk being swamped by Google should it gain access to sensor data.

Research Publication – Automotive ecosystem – Sitting ducks

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August 9th 2017:  Radio Free Mobile deepens its coverage of digital ecosystems with the publication of: Automotive Ecosystem – Sitting ducks.

RFM research subscribers will receive their copy directly by email. 

Click here for a sample and here for purchase options









Transport is the next industry to be digitised and almost all vehicle makers are unprepared. Electric Vehicles (EVs) and autonomy could reduce overall USA transport spending by 65% which needs to be supplemented with digital services by players wishing to survive. RFM thinks that sensor data is the one area where vehicle makers have an edge and hence, is critical to their future. They must control this asset or face becoming sitting ducks for those that would reduce them to handsets on wheels.

  • Digital differentiation. Transport is ripe for disruption. Furthermore, there is a real possibility that demand for vehicle shipments falls substantially over the next 10-15 years. RFM thinks that embracing digital, controlling sensor data combined with a completely new way of thinking is required by vehicle makers wishing to survive for the long-term.
  • Sensor data will be the new vehicular currency. RFM thinks that Digital Life services from smartphones will become ubiquitous and unlikely to offer value for vehicle makers. However, sensor data is unique, required for autonomy and critically, they still have a lock on access to it. RFM sees sensor data as the opportunity for vehicle makers to avoid severe disruption.
  • The infotainment unit could become the most important part of the vehicle as it is where all the sensor data can be accessed in one place. Furthermore, it is the main digital interface with the user meaning that the digital user experience will be defined here.
  • The gatekeepers. Despite the threat, RFM believes that the fact that OEMs are the gatekeepers to sensor data will give them a seat at the table as well as the opportunity to differentiate. How they execute on this is likely to define who survives and who does not.
  • Monetisation. RFM calculates that Digital Life (smartphone only) in the vehicle could be worth $112 per user per year in USA or $32.1bn in revenues. The use of sensor data could drive that figure higher. Potential substantial falls in both the radio advertising ($17.7bn) market and transportation ($2.6tn) market provide a plentiful source for spending on new digital services.
  • EVs and autonomy have the capacity to cause substantial declines in both vehicle shipments and transport spending as a whole. RFM calculates that manual EVs could reduce cost per mile to $0.40 per mile from $0.88 where it is today. Autonomy promises to reduce this still further to $0.29 per mile. There is huge economic incentive for consumers to switch to EVs which together with autonomy, could cause a 44% reduction in USA vehicle shipments.
  • Sitting ducks. While vehicle makers are aware of the threat, many are in denial and few have any real idea how to address it. Most are easy targets for those that would reduce them to handsets on wheels.

Uber vs. everyone – Colonial times

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Uber’s dreams of colonisation are slipping away.

  • First Uber lost China, then Russia and now it looks as if South East Asia may go the same way.
  • I am sure that Brazil and India are taking feverish notes.
  • SoftBank and Didi are investing $2bn investment in Grab, the Singapore-based ride-hailing company that offers its services in 6 countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines.
  • The total round is expected to be around $2.5bn with a post money valuation of $6bn.
  • Grab is present on 50m devices with 1.1m drivers and fulfilling 3m rides per day.
  • Grab has two advantages over Uber.
    • First: dominance. According to Grab, it already has 91% market share in taxi hailing and 71% in private vehicle hailing in the markets it serves.
    • This is crucial as RFM’s rule for online marketplaces states that to become to go to place to buy or sell a product or service, the marketplace has to have 60% market share or be double the size of its nearest rival.
    • Assuming these figures are accurate (there was a lot of dispute in China), then Grab has already become to the go to market place although the opportunity is very lowly penetrated.
    • I suspect that this is why it needs such a large fund raising as this position has to be maintained while the ride hailing becomes much more prevalent in the region.
    • Second: GrabPay. One of the problems with ride hailing in emerging markets is the fact that credit card penetration is very low.
    • A large part of the ride-hailing experience is the ease and simplicity of payment and GrabPay is way to bring this experience to those with no credit cards.
    • GrabPay credits can be purchased at ATMs, stores and banks (in a similar way to mobile phone airtime popups) which can then be used to pay for Grab services.
    • I think that this will remove one of the major hurdles to uptake of the service as this issue has made life difficult other offerings like EasyTaxi which operates in Latin America and the Middle East.
  • Uber’s rivals overseas are making the most of its turmoil at home as while management attention is focused in USA, I suspect not much is going on overseas.
  • This gives its rivals more time to establish themselves and none of them appear to be wasting any time.
  • The net result is that Uber’s dreams of colonising the world appear to be slipping away.
  • I suspect that it will remain dominant at home and some key Western markets (like UK) but it will have to do much more than just ride hailing in those markets to justify a $65bn valuation.
  • This is why autonomy may end up being so important as if Uber can capture a large piece of the gigantic $2.7tn transportation market in USA by operating a fleet of autonomous vehicles, then it could conceivably be worth 10x that figure.
  • However, Uber has a very long way to go before it gets to that point as its autonomous offering ranks dead last by RFM’s reckoning (see here) and the car makers could well be fighting in this market for their very existence.
  • I would not be surprised to hear of secondary transactions in Uber stock at well below $65bn and I can’t see much that’s going to push it up anytime soon.
  • One to avoid for now.