General Motors wants to switch entirely to electric vehicles by 2035 — but the automaker also is looking to expand the ways it makes money, exploring a range of new business opportunities that could deliver far greater returns than its traditional business model.
Among other things, GM is looking at insurance, ride-sharing, software and even flying cabs, senior officials including CEO Mary Barra told Reuters. But the automaker has to be wary of past mistakes that turned previous efforts to expand its business model into costly setbacks.
“We have very significant growth opportunities and different margin opportunity initiatives to invest in,” Barra said in a video interview with the news service.
Barra shakes things up
GM has already undergone some radical changes since Barra became the first female CEO of a major automaker in January 2014. It has closed a number of money-losing operations in places like Australia, Russia, India and South Africa, and it sold its deficit-ridden European unit, Opel-Vauxhall to what was then the French-based PSA Group.
Barra, meanwhile, has escalated spending on autonomous and electrified vehicles, with a goal of abandoning production of internal combustion engines by 2035. It has launched several new ventures related to its traditional business. San Francisco-based Cruise soon will launch a ride-sharing service using all-electric shuttles called the Cruise Origin. BrightDrop will market all-electric delivery vans and support services.
There are common threads connecting these new operations, including the extensive amount of software they require.
“The technologies incorporated in the software-defined vehicle will require areas of expertise that one routinely finds in technology companies rather than in automakers,” Pam Fletcher, the GM veteran overseeing GM’s Global Innovation unit, told Reuters.
Past ventures, past failures
GM’s history is peppered with non-automotive ventures. It was an early manufacturer of electric refrigerators, owning Frigidaire from 1919 to 1979. And it long operated its own “captive” finance subsidiary to help promote and profit from vehicle sales.
But General Motors Acceptance Corp. turned into an albatross in the run-up to the Great Recession, saddled with massive debt from risky mortgage lending. GMAC was sold off, the company later relaunching what is now GM Financial.
There are plenty of reasons to explore new business opportunities. For one thing, Wall Street has long been wary of the cyclical automotive business. GM shares languished for a decade after the company emerged from its 2009 bankruptcy.
GM stock finally on the move
The stock has soared in recent months, reflecting the company’s commitment to electric vehicles – and, in particular, to its targeting of EV market leader Tesla. It closed Tuesday at just below $62 a share, nearly 300% above its $20.12 52-week low.
But margins and revenues from other segments, such as software, could be significantly greater, according to Barra and Fletcher. The latter said the Global Innovation unit is looking at sectors that could be worth as much as $2.6 trillion in the years ahead.
Flying cabs alone are forecast to be worth half of that. The automaker teased its interest in that market during CEO Barra’s keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. The automaker’s global design chief Michael Simcoe showing off a prototype Cadillac flying vehicle.
GM isn’t alone
GM is by no means the only automaker looking into new business opportunities. Flying cabs seem particularly appealing, with Hyundai and Toyota among those who have shown off prototypes. Robotics is another field of widespread interest, Toyota and Honda both developing versions that could be used not only in manufacturing but to assist people with disabilities.
How well GM could fare from its interest in new business ventures is far from certain. But Barra said that they could generate tens of billions of dollars in revenues and sharply inflate its profit margins which currently run at 8%.
According to Fletcher, GM’s Global Innovation unit is currently nurturing “just under 20” new ventures. Not all would separate the automaker from its base. In some cases, it simply is looking for ways to add new revenue streams from its car business.
When you wish upon OnStar
That could provide some great opportunities for its OnStar subsidiary. OnStar began as a provider of telematics services, allowing motorists to remotely unlock their doors, for example, or calling for emergency services in the event of a crash.
“OnStar is already a very significant business,” said Barra. “We think there are opportunities to grow it even out beyond our vehicles.”
It is now offering insurance to vehicle owners. And it is exploring ways to monetize its two-way communications capabilities.
Industry experts see opportunities to do that in several ways. With more and more vehicle features based on software, OnStar could charge for future upgrades, for one thing. Then there’s the opportunity to provide in-vehicle entertainment, such as movies. That’s expected to become a hit with travelers in the years ahead when autonomous vehicles become the norm, providing a distraction on a journey.