The coming restructuring of the auto industry will yield winners and losers. New opportunities will open up for battery-makers and copper producers, but the hottest sector of all may be “auto tech,” which includes not only powertrain electronics such as motor controllers, inverters and chargers, but also self-driving hardware and software, and customer-facing components such as touchscreens, head-up displays and infotainment systems.
Tech companies are moving into the automotive space, making acquisitions and alliances to position themselves for profits under the new order. Last year, GM paid a billion bucks for Cruise Automation and invested half a billion in Lyft. Intel is putting its recent acquisition, Mobileye, to work in a partnership with BMW to build self-driving vehicles. Google is working with Fiat Chrysler on self-driving cars and providing display systems for Volvo. Israeli startup Otonomo is competing with Google and Apple to sell user data to Daimler and other automakers.
No company is better placed to thrive in the electric, automated future than Panasonic, which is steadily redirecting its focus from consumer electronics to auto tech. In February, Panasonic named Tom Gebhardt Chairman and CEO of its North American operations. Gebhardt’s former post was leading the company’s Automotive Systems subsidiary.
“Our business has evolved…from purely a consumer business to a B2B business,” Gebhardt recently told Business Insider. “There’s a number of reasons for that: The commoditization of consumer products [and] the unfavorability in some of the cost models led us to look for better values in in-vehicle technologies.”
Gebhardt said Panasonic is devoting more resources to digital cockpits and vehicle entertainment systems as self-driving vehicles get closer to reality. “If the scenario says the car drives itself, it’s similar to sitting in an airplane seat, because you’re no longer actively driving,” he said. “We see that as an evolution of the space that has infinite possibilities for us.”
Panasonic offered several glimpses of those possibilities at CES in January. Fiat Chrysler’s semi-autonomous Portal concept car featured a Panasonic touchscreen with facial and voice recognition. Panasonic also revealed a new system with a head-up display and augmented reality that’s designed to replace the traditional instrument cluster and many of the car’s physical controls. Some speculated that it was a preview of Model 3’s user interface. A few days later, Panasonic CEO Kazuhiro Tsuga said in an interview, “We are deeply interested in Tesla’s self-driving system. We are hoping to expand our collaboration by jointly developing devices for that, such as sensors.”
Meanwhile, Panasonic’s collaboration with Tesla on batteries gives it a large stake in the potential profits as electrification gathers momentum. Panasonic is one of the largest battery manufacturers in the world, and it plans to invest $1.6 billion in Tesla’s Gigafactory.
“The future is definitely electric, no question in my mind,” Gebhardt said. “What is the future timeline? Is it 10 years, 15 years, 40 years? It’s just a matter of what the adoption hits at the scale that makes this a slam dunk.”
Panasonic’s increasing investment in auto tech is already paying off, according to Nikkei Asian Review. At a recent financial briefing, President Kazuhiro Tsuga said the company is expecting an increase in net profit in fiscal year 2017, its first gain in two years, largely because of strong growth in EV batteries and other auto-related products. “We are confident we can achieve increases both in sales and profit for the year through March 2018 and later years,” he said.