It's no secret that driverless cars are coming to market before long. Automated vehicles -- which will include trucks as well as cars -- stand to be a hugely profitable business for the companies that emerge as leaders in the space.

Which will those companies be? Here are three good choices that all pay dividends and go beyond the obvious: Daimler AG (OTC:DDAI.F), Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), and General Motors (NYSE:GM).


Daimler, based in Stuttgart, Germany, is probably best-known as the parent company of luxury-car brand Mercedes-Benz. It's also a major global producer of trucks, commercial vehicles, and buses under several brands, including the Freightliner tractor-trailer brand.

Daimler's wide product range gives it several good reasons to be out in the forefront of driverless-vehicle development. Self-driving systems are already emerging as important offerings in luxury vehicles -- and it's becoming clear that driverless trucks will also be a hugely important market before long.

Given that, it should be no surprise that Daimler's driverless-vehicle research and development appears to be quite advanced. In fact, Daimler could be a leader in the transition to driverless long-haul heavy trucks, with its Highway Pilot system. Highway Pilot, currently under development, will allow heavy trucks to "platoon" in automated convoys.

A convoy of 3 Mercedes-Benz tractor-trailer trucks drives along a highway near Stuttgart. The driver of the lead truck has his hands behind his head.

Daimler conducted a public demonstration of its Highway Pilot system last year. These three Mercedes-Benz trucks are moving in an automated convoy on the Autobahn. Note the position of the lead driver's hands. Image source: Daimler AG.

CEO Dieter Zetsche has been a strong leader for Daimler, driving sales and profit growth at the Mercedes-Benz brand that has helped fund an aggressive technology push. Like a lot of big automakers, Daimler's stock is arguably somewhat undervalued at around 7.5 times last year's earnings -- but its low price makes for a fat 4.8% dividend yield.

Given where the world's new-vehicle markets are now, you may have to wait a few years to see significant profit growth materialize at Daimler. But if you reinvest that nice dividend while you wait, you may be very happy with the end result.


I'll admit right up front that there are reasons to be wary of Intel. Analysts have had big concerns, arguing that growth in the chip giant's core business is stalling and its management team has been stumbling from idea to idea in search of new growth.

There may be some truth to that. But one of the ideas that Intel "stumbled" on recently has the potential to be huge: its $15.3 billion deal to acquire Mobileye N.V. (NYSE:MBLY), announced in March.

Mobileye is a very, very big deal in the world of driverless-vehicle technology. The Israeli firm makes chips and software that help computers process and understand images -- and it has mastered the not-so-simple art of delivering chips that can survive and function for years in a harsh automotive environment.

Mobileye's systems are critical components of the driver-assist systems offered by nearly all automakers now. They'll be at least as important in driverless vehicles, where Mobileye's technology will be what allows the cars to "see" the roadway and surroundings.

Mobileye's technology is deeply respected by automakers, and its client list includes just about every automaker in the world. Those are huge assets that might well justify the huge price Intel is paying for Mobileye: Intel plans to leave Mobileye's team in place and add its own offerings to those that Mobileye markets to its clients.

Long story short: Acquiring Mobileye instantly makes Intel a major force in the emerging market for driverless-vehicle technology. And via its ongoing partnership with giant auto-industry supplier Delphi Automotive (NYSE:DLPH), it'll have a fully integrated Level 4 system to offer to automakers by the end of 2019. (Learn more about the "levels" of driverless-vehicle technology here.)

As Intel CEO Brian Krzanich sees it, that market will be huge. He said recently that the total addressable market for systems for driverless vehicles, and the data centers that will be built to support them, will be over $100 billion a year by 2030. Intel is now in an excellent position to grab a big piece of that market, and that will have a substantial impact on a company that generated $59.4 billion in revenue last year.

Intel's stock isn't expensive, with a forward price-to-earnings ratio around 12, and its forward dividend yield of 3% means you'll get paid to wait for the growth to materialize. Whatever Intel's other flaws, acquiring Mobileye seems very likely to open a door to significant top- and bottom-line growth for Intel over the next several years.

General Motors

For starters, GM's stock is cheap at just 5 times its 2016 earnings, its very sustainable dividend is yielding about 4.6%, and profits under CEO Mary Barra have recently been terrific.

Those profits have given Barra and her team an opportunity to spend big on future technology, including driverless cars. Thanks in part to its subsidiary Cruise Automation, GM's driverless-vehicle technology is probably ahead of most rivals'. And unlike those rivals, GM already has the perfect vehicle to launch its driverless technology: the electric Chevrolet Bolt EV.

A white Chevrolet Bolt EV with self-driving sensors is shown on a public road near GM's technical center.

GM has been testing Chevrolet Bolts equipped with its prototype driverless system in several locations around the country. This one is shown near GM's technical center in Warren, Michigan. Image source: General Motors.

We don't know as much about GM's plans as we do about most of its rivals'. Barra's style is to keep things under wraps until the products are able to do the talking. That means there are likely to be some big surprises in store over the next couple of years.

But we do know some things that give us a good idea of what GM has in mind:

  • GM has said repeatedly that the Bolt will be its "platform" for future technologies, including its driverless-vehicle system.
  • GM owns 9% of Lyft, has a seat on Lyft's board, and is believed to be planning a mass test of driverless Bolts in Lyft service in several U.S. cities that will start later this year.
  • Cruise Automation, a driverless-car start-up that GM bought last year, has been testing self-driving Chevy Bolts out in the open in San Francisco for months now.
  • GM is adding a lot of bandwidth to its long-established OnStar connected-vehicle network.
  • GM started an urban car-sharing service last year, and driverless cars may factor into its future plans.

You don't have to squint too hard to see the picture: a whole lot of self-driving Chevy Bolts in car-sharing and ride-hailing service in cities around the world, starting quite soon. And it doesn't take much of a leap to see another picture emerging: GM making strong profits, as one of the first companies to bring viable self-driving vehicles to market.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.