LONDON: The Saudi-backed SoftBank Vision Fund has placed a huge bet on autonomous vehicles with a $2.25 billion investment in General Motors’ Cruise Holdings, geared to achieving “commercialization at scale” from next year.
The investment complements SoftBank’s shareholding in ride-sharing app Uber, and furthers Saudi Arabia’s strategy of investing in dynamic technology firms as a means of diversifying away from a reliance on oil.
The investment comes at a time when rivals Tesla, Alphabet Inc’s Waymo and Uber are angling for first-mover advantage in the autonomous vehicle market.
Waymo is forecast to capture 60 percent of the driverless car market by 2030, according to UBS, at which point the market could be worth as much as $2.8 trillion.
But analysts suggest that SoftBank’s massive investment in GM’s autonomous vehicle division GM Cruise — which the car giant acquired in 2016 from Cruise Automation — puts the US’s largest carmaker at a massive advantage.
“The fact that they have been able to put a time scale on it is a big step forward and it makes GM a leader,” Anna Marie Baisden, head of autos research at BMI Research, told Arab News.
Baisden also noted that GM is the most aggressive “pure” AV manufacturer, which means the US car-maker is focused on 100 percent autonomous driving cars, unlike Tesla’s hybrid models.
GM shares jumped over 10 percent yesterday on news of the investment.
The Vision Fund will initially invest $900 million in GM Cruise Holdings, investing the remaining $1.35 billion when GM’s Cruise AVs are ready for commercial deployment, GM said yesterday. The investment will give the Vision Fund a 19.6 percent stake in GM Cruise.
“With so many firms investing countless resources and billions of dollars into self-driving vehicles, the investment can be seen as further validation in (GM Cruise’s) technology,” said Buddy Lo, an automotive analyst at research company Mintel.
The Vision Fund GM deal follows other significant investments in the mobility space, including Uber and Nvidia, said Lo.
”Softbank’s recent activity in (this) space indicates it believes mobility is at a watershed moment and seeks to be at the forefront of mobility in the future,” he said.
“The Softbank Cruise investment increases the pressure to bring a commercially viable product to market within the next few years, or be left behind entirely.”
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is one of the largest investors in the Vision Fund, having committed $45 billion. Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company, Apple, Foxconn and Qualcomm are also contributors.
PIF’s participation in the fund forms part of Saudi Arabia’s diversification strategy, via high-profile investments in global technology firms to reduce the Kingdom’s reliance on oil revenues.
PIF and the Vision Fund in March announced a partnership to build the world’s largest solar project in Saudi Arabia, with a capacity of up to 200 gigawatts, equivalent to 50 percent of total global solar capacity worldwide.
Autonomous vehicles are at the heart of the Kingdom’s $500 billion NEOM smart city project, unveiled in October.
But Baisden cautioned that a world where AVs car are the norm is still “decades” away, with significant regulatory hurdles still yet to be overcome.
“At the moment, most people still say they like to take control of their cars,” she said.
AVs are likely to be initially adopted by car fleet, logistics and taxi sectors.
“The public has to see them working in other sectors first before they buy.”