Debate raging on car ownership

Car alliance chairman Carlos Ghosn's prediction that vehicle sales will continue to expand flies in the face of forecasts that ride-hailing and car-sharing will upend the more than $2.7-trillion annual business of selling new vehicles.
Car alliance chairman Carlos Ghosn's prediction that vehicle sales will continue to expand flies in the face of forecasts that ride-hailing and car-sharing will upend the more than $2.7-trillion annual business of selling new vehicles.PHOTO: ST FILE

Personal car ownership is not going anywhere, regardless of the rise of Uber Technologies and ride-sharing, according to the man who may oversee more car sales than anyone else this year.

Global vehicle sales will continue to expand, with alternative forms of mobility making only a marginal impact or actually boosting demand, said Mr Carlos Ghosn, chairman of the alliance between Renault, Nissan Motor and Mitsubishi Motors.

"A lot of people think this is substitution. It's not - it's addition," Mr Ghosn said in an interview on Wednesday at Bloomberg's The Year Ahead conference in New York.

"The traditional business of building cars and selling cars and owning cars is going to continue."

His prediction flies in the face of forecasts that the emergence of ride-hailing and car-sharing - eventually coupled with vehicles capable of driving themselves - will upend the more than US$2-trillion (S$2.7-trillion) annual business of selling new vehicles.

Demand in developed markets like the United States, Europe and Japan is stabilising, but rates of ownership still have room to rise in markets including China and India, Mr Ghosn said.

The group of companies he oversees is poised to sell about 10.5 million cars and trucks globally this year, enough to contend with Volkswagen and Toyota Motor for the industry's top sales spot for the first time.

The alliance has forecast deliveries will be at least 14 million in 2022.

"The growth is going to be here, because the first thing people aspire to is an autonomous way of transportation," Mr Ghosn said.

Born in Brazil, raised in Lebanon and educated in France, Mr Ghosn, 63, is an adamant believer in open borders and free trade.

"I have absolutely no doubt on the fact that in the long term, we're going to continue to see an evolution and the development of globalisation," which is "here to stay", he said.

"It's going to change, it's going to modernise, it's going to adapt, but there's no way you're going to put the economy back behind borders and you're going to build walls," he said. "Because frankly, this is not the way history is going and it's certainly not the way wealth can be created and people can benefit."

But billionaire investor Carl Icahn does not agree.

He figures many people in the US will eventually treat their vehicles as dismissively as he does, if they bother owning any at all.

That is part of why he expects he will make a bundle on the offbeat collection of investments he has assembled, including a raft of car repair and supply outfits, a small stake in Lyft and a controlling position in Hertz Global Holdings.

"If you look at these businesses as single things, I don't think they're that great," he said in a recent interview.

But they are positioned as a group to cash in on the new car culture.

"There's a secular change happening, which we see as a great opportunity and it will be good for Icahn Enterprises."

Mr Icahn imagines the next two decades or so of transportation the way a lot of experts do: Americans will ditch personal cars, opting instead for communal rideshares or short-term rentals, some of them self-driving and fuelled by electricity.

Mr Icahn sees the migration playing into his hands. He is sure enough that he has invested more than US$3 billion so far, not counting what he has put into Hertz.

Lyft would benefit, of course, as it competes with leader Uber Technologies.

And since those companies have zero interest in taking care of fleets, the 1,900 service centres Icahn Automotive Group owns would stay busy. (They include American Driveline Systems, Pep Boys and Auto Plus.)

Meanwhile, Hertz is restructuring its main business and trying to set itself up as a manager of ride-hailing fleets and, eventually, of so-called robotaxis. (Hertz's shares zoomed in June on news that Apple was leasing cars from the rental giant to test self-driving technology.)

"If Icahn is talking about managing a fleet of autonomous vehicles, then he has a business," said car consultant Maryann Keller, who used to be on the board of Dollar/Thrifty Automotive Group, which was acquired by Hertz.

"If Uber has fleets of autonomous cars, they will pay someone to manage them."

Bolstering Mr Icahn's plan is Federal Mogul Holdings, a maker of after-market parts - including Champion spark plugs and Wagner brakes - that he took private in January.

He said he is not done acquiring, with the next up being mom-and-pop repair shops and collision-service outfits. "We're buying them," he said. "I pay a little more because I want to build this."

He is already linking his businesses. He arranged a partnership between Pep Boys and Hertz to locate 50 rental counters at the repair chain's locations.

Lyft drivers can lease a Hertz vehicle and Pep Boys will inspect it and certify that it meets Lyft's specifications.

If the car needs repairs, the driver can take it to Pep Boys, said Mr Dan Ninivaggi, CEO of Icahn Automotive.

Lyft, the theory goes, will attract more drivers if people who do not own cars can easily lease them.

Hertz will make more money off its short-term rental fleet; at the moment, a model that has put in 18 to 20 months of work for tourists and business travellers is sent off to a used-car auction, where it does not pull in a lot of cash in a depressed market.

And because the Lyft-lease vehicles will have already depreciated, they will be a lot cheaper for drivers than a brand new set of wheels.

Depreciation is a bugbear, Mr Ninivaggi said. "Car rental companies have to operate other channels beyond an 18-to 20-month holding period."

Another plank in Mr Icahn's strategy is consolidating his parts and service businesses and having those buy from Federal Mogul, the second-largest after-market parts seller in the US.

Mr Ninivaggi said Federal Mogul offers them better prices than the likes of O'Reilly Automotive or AutoZone.

These days, repair shops might be better off under one umbrella: As carmakers stuff more technology under the hood, it is tougher for small outlets to afford fancy diagnostic equipment and hire trained technicians, Mr Icahn said.

So as Icahn Automotive expands its service network, it has greater capability for purchasing and education.

"Carl spends a lot of time on this," Mr Ninivaggi said. The billionaire may have missed his calling. "I joke with him that he could have worked in one of the shops in Queens, working on the cars and moving tyres around."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2017, with the headline 'Debate raging on car ownership'. Print Edition | Subscribe