Billionaire Warren Buffett Is Scared of Driverless Cars

Despite recent innovations in usage-based insurance and driverless cars, Buffett and Munger aren't worried about Geico's future prospects

Jun 22, 2014 at 8:39AM

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Every year, thousands of investors flock to Omaha to hear the wisdom of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. For as long as six hours, with only one break for lunch, the two business legends take questions from investors, the press, and analysts. 

Appropriately for a shareholder meeting, the focus is the business of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) but it's not the only topic they discuss. This year, Buffett discussed usage-based insurance and driverless cars in response to a question from financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times.

Following are my notes on Sorkin's question, along with responses from Buffett and Munger.

Andrew Ross Sorkin: Could you explain how you think about usage-based car insurance pricing, and how it could affect the industry in the next decade? How does it affect the moat of Geico? Would you consider selling Geico? Also, what effect will self-driving cars have on Geico?

Warren: The answer to "would we sell" is no.

Usage-based pricing has been favorable among firms that have tried it. There's no question that knowing how customers drive is a valuable insight into how to price the premium. Insurance is about evaluating the propensity of loss when calculating the premium. And, it's very easy to understand in life insurance that a 90-year-old is more likely to die than a 20 year old, despite Charlie's situation. That's obvious. Females live longer, that's obvious. So there's various variables and you try to set the proper price in insurance. If you lived in a state where the population was 1 rather than 100 million, there'd be a lower chance of an accident. Through studying usage using varying methods, they're using variables to try to get information about the likelihood of that driver being in an accident.

We [at Geico] look at a lot of variables. We have a good system, and it's proven worthy so far. I feel very, very good about Geico and its management's ability to measure risk. I think there are plenty of others who are good at it, but none better in auto insurance.

Self-driving cars are a real threat to insurers if it's successful. It can happen, but I don't know how to forecast it. It certainly could happen, but we're not for one second thinking about selling Geico.

Charlie: Some of these things happen much more slowly than you might think. I went to a program 30 years ago talking about color movies on demand would take over and it happened, but it wasn't right around the corner like they said.

Warren: We may be wrong, but we'll be wrong together [with Charlie]. Geico will be doing a lot more business five and 10 years from now. But 30 years from now... I won't be around to know (laughs).

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Brendan Mathews owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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