AutoNation makes a play for future relevance

The following is Dale Pollak’s column that ran on his site on Nov. 3.

I can’t help but regard AutoNation’s multi-year deal to service Waymo vehicles as a smart move for the company, and perhaps a telling sign for the rest of us.

My job has me traveling the country, speaking at dealer groups and other events and, more and more of late, talking about the future of the car business.

Inevitably, the conversations land on two factors—that the very nature of vehicle ownership is changing fast, and that fleets of self-driving cars don’t necessarily mesh well with the franchised dealer network’s current ways of doing business and making money. The term disintermediation comes up, time and time again.

But I try to make the point that if the car business evolves into the transportation business, dealers would do well to figure out, and pursue, how their roles may change and how they should adapt. I also make the point that pioneers tend to get the greenest fields in new lands of opportunity.

That’s what makes the AutoNation/Waymo partnership noteworthy.

AutoNation isn’t waiting to see how the evolution and impact of self-driving vehicles might play out. They want a seat at the table, and the Waymo partnership provides it.

Similarly, the partnership starts to answer a big question about self-driving vehicles: Who’s going to fix them? The manufacturers? Dealers? An off-shoot of already-centralized service facilities in operation by rental car companies and others?

I see a couple potential advantages for AutoNation:

—They’ll be among the first to understand how to fix self-driving cars. AutoNation now has an incentive to build the know-how to maintain and repair what are probably the most sophisticated, technology-centric vehicles on the road. The decision to sign up first for this learning curve underscores executive understanding that first mover advantage really matters.

—It validates AutoNation’s size and scale. Waymo recognizes it’ll need a means to keep its vehicles on the road, and AutoNation happens to have the largest owned network of dealerships where the maintenance and other repair work can occur. A dealer with two, three or even 10 stores would be unlikely to offer Waymo a cost- and process-efficient platform to achieve its goals.

—It creates a new, diversifying line of business. The Waymo partnership offers potential fixed operations profit for AutoNation’s dealerships from a fresh source. If done right, the profitability that comes from this work could mean more to AutoNation’s bottom line than many of the new vehicles it retails. What’s more, the partnership may provide sufficient return that enables AutoNation to capture a larger share of new/used vehicle sales, which would often even greater operational efficiency gains.

As I talk to industry media and observers about the future of the business, and the seeming rise of disintermediating threats from as-yet unknown players and technologies, I am always sure to make the point that “I wouldn’t bet against a dealer’s ability to adapt and thrive.”

That’s exactly what AutoNation appears to be doing with its Waymo partnership.

Dale Pollak is the founder of vAuto and an executive with Cox Automotive. This column ran on his blog on Nov. 3. For this story and all his posts, visit www.dalepollak.com.

Dale Pollak