Publications

- August 1, 2017: Vol. 4, Number 8

Have Money, Will Travel: Advanced forms of transportation — from the interstate to the interstellar — are becoming investable asset classes

by Mike Consol

America, apple pie and a Chevrolet in the driveway. That, as they say, is the American way. The automobile sitting in the driveway is the second most expensive hard asset — next to the single-family home — most people invest in during their lifetimes.

That will all change by 2030, according to many transportation experts, who are touting fully autonomous cars that are hailed on an as-needed basis. Think in terms of fractional ownership, or even subscription services. Tony Seba, author of Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation, says private car ownership will drop 80 percent by 2030 based purely on cost considerations, as the price of transportation declines by fourfold to tenfold, down to a mere 10 cents per mile. All the maintenance, servicing and insurance costs will be taken away and handled by the transportation provider.

Automobile manufacturers, who expect to have fully autonomous cars by 2021, are already trying to get out in front of what promises to be a transportation revolution.

Bill Ford Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., says his organization is studying the prospects of providing fractional ownership. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, has already added “rideshare type of environment” into her lexicon. Uber and Lyft have made clear their ambitions of providing driverless on-demand transportation as an alternative to car ownership.

The implications for the real estate business and urban planners are profound. Seba expects 80 percent fewer cars on the road, as well as an 80 percent drop in demand for parking spaces. Consider that vehicles sit idle the vast majority of the day and night.

Radio interviewer Tom Ashbrook, host of the program On Point, flatly states: “Can you envision streets full of self-driving cars?”

That is a hard one for Americans to wrap their minds around, but who would have foreseen the disappearance of phone booths and land-lines, or movie rental and record stores, or maps and bookstores?

Not to drone on about this subject, but drones have barely got off the ground, and it is only a matter of time and technology before that becomes yet another personal transportation revolution.

BY LAND, SEA AND AIR

While ground transportation is creating new investable asset classes in the form of electric and autonomous vehicles, let’s not forget that seafaring vessels are similarly on the cusp of moving into a new era, ranging from solar- and biofuel-powered ships, to autonomous navigation, much as is the case with cars and trucks.

Similarly, jetliners can be equipped to autonomously takeoff, fly to their destination and safely land (though some remote pilot intervention is still required at this stage), and short-haul all-electric jets are currently in development at Wright Electric. But even more exhilarating are the prospects for the continued development of private space travel. As McKinsey & Co. recently wrote in a July 2017 report, “Billionaire businesspeople are betting on a future in which public trips to Mars and back are reality, not a sci-fi fan’s fever dream.” The famed consulting firm took the step of interviewing five leaders from industry, academia and business to discuss their perspectives on the future of space travel and exploration — and the business model that might succeed.

This could be the dawn of yet another investable real-asset class. If it sounds farfetched, who would have thought 20 years ago that private companies would be in the space travel business and talking about space as the next frontier in tourism? Who would have guessed that a research and consulting firm as serious as McKinsey would be investigating its progress and prospects? Indeed, investment opportunities already exist, one of which is Allied Minds, a venture-capital fund focused on space-science startups. John Serafini, an executive with Allied Minds, was among the people McKinsey checked in with for some insights.

VC investing is high-risk by nature, and private investing in space exploration is another galaxy apart.

Consider that Yale professor of astronomy and physics Priyamvada Natarajan, another source in the McKinsey report, points out that space is both an engineering and biology challenge. While engineering hurdles are being cleared, the space effort “is lacking innovation, ideas, and funding in understanding exactly how organic molecules in our bodies and in plants will react to radiation on Mars — the kinds of radiation levels we have never been exposed to before.”

So let me put it this way: Ground control to Major Tom, all of these new and potential transportation asset classes are enormously exciting but risky, and space ventures in particular have us floating in a most peculiar way. Proceed with caution.

 

Mike Consol (m.consol@irei.com) is editor if Real Assets Adviser.

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