At the recent Milken Institute's 2014 Global Conference, which is one of the biggest conferences in the U.S. for thought leaders from a variety of disciplines, there was an interesting segment on the future of cars, called "Look Ma, No Hands!" That title, of course, is referring to self-driving cars, which all the experts agreed will eventually be here and rule the roads. The panel included Chris Urmson, who heads Google's (GOOG 1.56%) self-driving car project, along with representatives from Ford Motor, Stanford University, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA.
Various facets of the transitioning to self-driving cars were covered, but we're going to focus on one belief expressed by Google's Urmson: The emergence of self-driving vehicles will cause malls and downtown city areas to "blossom." (I fully agree with his take about downtowns, though I'm not so sure about malls. While I think malls will get a big boost from self-driving vehicles, it seems to me that the counteracting force of more people ordering an ever-widening array of products online might be greater.)
The entire talk from the conference is worth a listen, but the relevant clip in which Urmson explains his reasoning for this opinion runs between 1:00:58 and 1:02:25. Below the video, there is a look at some possible investments that could be winners if he's right.
Eat, drink, and be merry... for nobody has to drive
If you watched the video, you heard Urmson say: "People will be able to get dropped off at the restaurant, enjoy their time, have a drink or two, and get a ride home safely." I couldn't agree with him more that people will likely head out to dinner (and elsewhere) more frequently when certain hassles or negatives involved in driving are removed. Those negatives not only include the congested parking at mall-based restaurants that Urmson talked about, but also the usually pricey parking involved if you want to park close to your dinner destination in a downtown area of a major city.
Urmson's comments seem to imply that he thinks that alcohol consumption at restaurants will rise. I agree -- and I also think they'll be a rise in alcohol consumption in public places, in general. If nobody has to drive, nobody needs to act as a "designated driver" and limit his or her alcohol consumption. A rise in alcohol consumption at public places should benefit all throughout the supply chain. Dinner-oriented restaurants serving alcoholic drinks and bars could reap sizable benefits because of the huge mark-ups on alcohol.
So, there are two main ways to play this one: invest in the alcoholic beverage companies that provide alcohol to restaurants, or invest in publicly traded restaurant stocks that serve alcohol. Beer brewer names include industry heavyweight Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD -1.69%), craft beer darling Boston Beer (SAM 0.61%), Molson Coors Brewing, Heineken, and SABMiller. Constellation Brands (STZ 0.13%) has been a top performer in the wine and spirits category over both the short and long term.
On the restaurant end, investors might consider Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG 0.47%). If Urmson is correct, restaurants such as Chipotle will benefit both from increased food and alcohol sales. While alcohol sales only comprise a very small percentage of its total sales -- historically in the 1%-2% range -- the percentage of total profits will be considerably higher, given restaurants' big mark-ups on alcohol. Further, last year Chipotle upgraded its alcoholic beverage offerings to include hand-made margaritas at many U.S. restaurants -- premium versions go for a fat $6.50-$8.00 a pop. So, it's likely the company's alcohol to total sales revenue will increase.