Some of the world’s biggest companies are raising their bets on the future of personal transportation.
Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. GOOGL 2.09% on Thursday revealed plans to invest billions of dollars in two separate deals with auto makers that highlight the global race to transform the way people get around.
SoftBank said its $92 billion Vision Fund would invest $2.25 billion in General Motors Co.’s driverless-car unit, while Alphabet’s self-driving car subsidiary Waymo LLC said it would buy as many as 62,000 minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV as part of a plan to dramatically increase the number of driverless cars it has on the road in coming years. The tech company didn’t disclose a purchase price.
If all the vehicles were purchased, the total could amount to more than $2 billion, said a person familiar with the matter.
Auto makers, technology giants and investors are scrambling to plant stakes in a transportation landscape that is swiftly being reshaped by technology, where future success could be tied less to putting vehicles in people’s garages and more to selling mobility as a service. Electric vehicles, autonomous driving and ride-hailing already have changed consumer’s relationship to cars, creating unlikely alliances between companies and nontraditional investors.
Warren Buffett, who famously eschewed tech investing in the past, earlier this year sought to invest $3 billion in Uber Technologies Inc. through his Berkshire Hathaway Inc., but the two sides couldn’t agree on the terms, said a person familiar with the matter. “Some of the reported details are not correct but it’s true that Berkshire had discussions with Uber,” Mr. Buffett on Thursday said in a statement.
SoftBank is buying a 19.6% stake in GM Cruise Holdings LLC, a newly formed entity primarily made up of Cruise Automation, the driverless-car developer that GM acquired in early 2016.
GM investors endorsed the SoftBank deal, sending the auto maker’s shares up 13% to close at $42.70 on Thursday—a rare move for a stock that lately has struggled to garner investor enthusiasm despite back-to-back years of record operating profits. For years, GM’s shares have languished as valuations for upstarts such as electric-car maker Tesla Inc. and Uber soared on expectations of heady growth.
GM executives recently outlined to Wall Street a business strategy based on revenue-per-mile from future autonomous taxi fleets, a significant shift in strategy from the Detroit company’s metal-bending heritage.
The auto maker next year plans to launch a robot ride-hailing service in several U.S. cities, the start of what GM executives believe could be a business that eventually out-earns its core enterprise, which earned $12.8 billion in operating profit last year.
Created with Highstock 2.1.8May 314:01 p.m., ET$42.70DAILY CHG▲ 12.87%▲ $4.87GM Stock-Price PerformanceMay 8May 14May 20May 24May 303436384042$44Source: WSJ Market Data Group
GM executives expect services tied to driverless vehicles to eventually become a multitrillion-dollar market.
The SoftBank investment provides additional credibility to GM’s plans. Although the GM Cruise deal marks a direct entry for the Japanese investor into the autonomous-vehicle space, its Vision Fund already has invested around $20 billion globally in ride-hailing companies, including Uber and China’s Didi Chuxing Technology Co. Over the longer term, SoftBank Chief Executive Masayoshi Son wants to build a global network of ride-sharing companies that use fleets of self-driving vehicles, said people briefed on his strategy.
GM, which in 2016 invested $500 million in Uber rival Lyft, has left open the question of whether it eventually will partner with a ride-hailing company or launch its own transportation service. On an analyst call Thursday, GM President Dan Ammann said SoftBank’s extensive ride-hailing portfolio brings “a unique set of relationships and an ecosystem to the table.”
The Vision Fund’s investment values GM Cruise at $11.5 billion—about one-fifth the market value of GM, which has been around for 110 years and generated nearly $150 billion in revenue last year. GM purchased Cruise, a San Francisco-based startup, in early 2016 for around $1 billion, including milestone payments.
By creating a holding company for Cruise, GM cleared the way for a private investor like SoftBank to bet on a fast-growing part of the company separate from the relatively low-margin, capital-intensive business of making cars.
Chief Executive Mary Barra told reporters Thursday that GM was able to fund the commercialization of the driverless technology on its own, but the SoftBank infusion would provide the auto maker greater flexibility to invest in the traditional part of its business.
GM said it had planned to invest about $1.1 billion in autonomous-vehicle development this year, roughly 12% of its overall capital spending. GM said it would retain an 80.4% stake in GM Cruise after the Vision Fund investments go through.
SoftBank Vision Fund has some holdings related to self-driving cars, including an investment in chip maker Nvidia Corp. , which has an artificial-intelligence computing platform for driverless cars and a $164 million investment in Mapbox Inc., a startup that provides mapping and location-search technology.
Michael Ronen, managing partner of SoftBank Investment Advisers, said the fund was attracted to the speed of GM’s progress since acquiring Cruise and believes GM’s ability to produce driverless cars at scale in its own factory will be a “huge differentiator” as GM vies for leadership in the space with Waymo and others.
Waymo has planned to acquire thousands of vehicles to build out a robot taxi fleet it plans to launch this year. The tech company already has begun deploying Chrysler Pacifica minivans equipped with its sensors and software.
Ford Motor Co. is investing $1 billion over five years in Pittsburgh startup Argo AI and plans to initially focus on autonomous vehicles for commercial deliveries, starting in 2021.
GM Cruise has grown to more than 800 employees, from about 40, and is testing about 180 autonomous Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles in various U.S. cities.
Many analysts have tabbed Waymo and GM Cruise as the leaders in deploying a technology that likely will take years to reach a large scale, given technical and regulatory hurdles.
Mr. Ronen cited GM’s focus on safety as “first and foremost” in the Vision Fund’s interest in the company.
—Mayumi Negishi and Nicole Friedman contributed to this article.
Write to Mike Colias at Mike.Colias@wsj.com and Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com
Corrections & Amplifications
General Motors Co. generated nearly $150 billion in revenue last year. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said GM generated nearly $150 billion in operating profit last year. (May 31, 2018)
Appeared in the June 1, 2018, print edition as ‘Self-Driving Vehicles Lead SoftBank, Waymo to Detroit.’