There are three things that most analysts in the automotive space agree on:
- Autonomous vehicles, or "self-driving cars," are for real, and headed to market.
- Once there are enough of them on the world's roads, the car business will be transformed, somehow.
- It will take several years (at least) for the nature of these transformations to become clear.
Those points lead to a couple of questions that investors have been asking:
- Are there ways to invest in this emerging trend?
- Can we collect a dividend while we wait for these new businesses to emerge?
The good news is that there are some companies that stand a good chance of seeing significant bottom-line growth in the self-driving world of the near future -- and that pay a good dividend right now. Here's why I think Autoliv (ALV 1.57%), Daimler AG (DDAI.F -0.64%), Qualcomm (QCOM -3.30%), Intel (INTC -2.86%), and Ford Motor Company (F 1.71%) are worth a closer look.
Autoliv is a big, important auto-industry supplier based in Sweden. Today, it's the world's largest supplier of automotive safety systems, a category that includes products like adaptive cruise control and automatic forward-collision braking systems that are building blocks for full self-driving. Importantly, its client list already includes most of the world's major automakers.
Autonomous-vehicle systems are a natural extension of its current product line. Last year, the company announced a partnership with Volvo Cars to develop a full self-driving system. About 200 employees drawn from both companies are working on a Level 4 self-driving system. Once it's ready, Autoliv will have the right to market it to other automakers, likely early next decade.
Autoliv's dividend yield is 2.4%, with a probably-sustainable payout ratio of 35.8%. Its price-to-earnings ratio is just under 16, on the high side but not outrageous given its technology orientation. But I'd argue it's still good value for a company with a solid track record of careful management, well-positioned to take advantage of this emerging trend.
Daimler is mostly known to U.S. investors as the maker of Mercedes-Benz luxury vehicles. But it's more than that: Daimler is also a major global producer of medium and heavy trucks and buses under several brands, including Freightliner and the Mercedes-Benz brand.
Daimler has been working on self-driving systems for many years, and its efforts appear to be quite advanced. Self-driving has obvious near-future applications in luxury cars, but the more significant opportunity over the next several years may be in automated long-haul trucking.
Daimler could be a leader in the transition to self-driving heavy trucks. Its Highway Pilot system allows automated tractor-trailers to "platoon," or drive in a closely spaced, automated convoy.
Like most automakers, Daimler is a bit undervalued by the market at the moment. That makes for a fat forward dividend yield of about 4.6%, on a payout ratio of 41%. Under CEO Dieter Zetsche, Daimler's sales and margins have grown while the company makes strong investments for the future.
There's much more to chip giant Qualcomm's business than autonomous-vehicle technology, of course. But it's taking a big leap into the self-driving space with the acquisition of NXP Semiconductors, which is expected to close by the end of this year.
NXP specializes in semiconductors for automotive applications. That's more specialized than you might think: Autos, with their long lives, constant vibration, and wide temperature cycles, require rugged chips.
NXP's offerings include chips designed to process radar and camera inputs, and an off-the-shelf product called BlueBox that packages several processors into a pre-wired "brain" for autonomous-vehicle developers.
Qualcomm had about $24 billion in revenue in 2016. The combined company is expected to generate about $30 billion, so NXP is a significant addition.
Qualcomm's forward dividend yield is a nice 3.7%, on a hefty 63% payout ratio. Its forward price-to-earnings ratio is about 11.9, on the low side. The company has raised its dividend annually for 14 consecutive years.
Intel is kind of the dark horse here. On the one hand, as plenty of analysts will tell you, its core business is stagnating and its management team has been scrounging for growth catalysts.
Mobileye is a big deal in the self-driving world. It makes chips and software that help computers intelligently understand images. These are critical components of today's advanced driver-assist systems, and they will be huge in tomorrow's self-driving vehicles. Simply put, Mobileye comes with deeply respected technology and a client list that includes nearly all of the world's automakers, two very important assets.
When the deal closes later this year, those assets will be Intel's, and Intel will instantly become a major player in advanced automotive systems. CEO Brian Krzanich thinks of self-driving cars as "data centers on wheels"; he believes the total addressable market for systems for autonomous vehicles, and the data centers that will support them, will be over $100 billion a year by 2030.
Whatever its other flaws, Intel is now in a prime position to grab a big piece of that. The impact on a company that generated $59.4 billion in revenue in 2016 is likely to be quite significant.
Right now, Intel pays a forward dividend yield of 3.1%, for a payout ratio of 49%. Its forward price-to-earnings ratio is just over 12, a reflection of analysts' concerns. But the Mobileye deal looks from here like a gateway to big growth -- and a better valuation.
Ford Motor Company
There are several good reasons to think that Ford is a value buy for investors willing to be patient. Self-driving is one: Ford's research and development efforts, already fairly advanced, took a very big step forward earlier this year when it announced a $1 billion investment in a new start-up called Argo AI.
Argo AI is a big deal. This start-up, led by self-driving superstars from Alphabet and Uber, will create the software "brain" for Ford's self-driving cars. Its structure should give Ford's effort a big recruiting and retention advantage over rivals. That could prove to be huge.
On the product side, Ford plans to begin mass-producing a dedicated Level 4 self-driving vehicle for car-sharing and ride-hailing use in 2021. It appears to be laying the groundwork for an app-based suite of mobility services that might include a Ford-branded challenge to Uber and Lyft. Taken together, the world of "mobility" offers a significant bottom-line growth opportunity for Ford, one that CEO Mark Fields is already working to seize.
Meanwhile, Ford is booking fat profits on trucks and SUVs. But the stock is cheap, because analysts are skeptical of its near-term growth potential; it's trading at around 6.5 times its adjusted 2016 earnings. Patience will be required, as it will take some time for the bottom-line growth to materialize.
But while you wait, you'll collect a fat (and likely sustainable) dividend yield of 5.16%. And you'll sleep at night: Fields and his battle-tested management team, nearly all veterans of Ford's turnaround, are making the right moves to take Ford into a profitable future.