The world's most famous investor, Warren Buffett, told the crowd at the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) annual meeting that the self-driving revolution is "a real threat to insurers if it's successful." With Berkshire subsidiary GEICO such an important part of Buffett's empire you can bet he's keeping a close eye on things.
But those who know Buffett best don't think he's particularly concerned about the lower insurance premiums that would result from a mostly accident-free society. There are, for instance, ways to make a fortune off the the self-driving revolution -- and Buffett is likely a step ahead of the rest of us in accomplishing that. For a detailed look (some say too detailed) at one industry poised to profit, see here.
At this year's annual Berkshire meeting, I spoke with Larry Cunningham, who makes it his job to understand Buffett and his strategy. His take, and Buffett's complete utterings on driverless cars, are all in the video below.
Coming soon to a street near you: Driverless cars! It's hard not to welcome a revolution that will drastically cut down on auto accidents, relieve road congestion, and allow us to sleep during our commute. It seems the only people not excited about the promise of self-driving vehicles are truck drivers. And delivery people. Taxi drivers. Parking lot operators. Maybe police and emergency responders, who will see a decrease in demand for what they do. Oh, and personal injury lawyers. And yes, yes... the insurance industry.
GEICO is the second-largest auto insurer in the U.S., and is certainly anticipating a time when there will be fewer cars on the road to insure — with those fewer cars getting into only a tiny fraction of the accidents we now see.
Here's what Warren Buffett told shareholders during the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting:
"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."
He doesn't think driverless cars will be here very soon, though. After partner Charlie Munger noted that many things happen much more slowly than people anticipate, Buffett said:
"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.
But, and here's the important thing for Berkshire shareholders, Warren Buffett and GEICO can transition to a new reality as well as anyone else. Here's Larry Cunningham, author of Berkshire Beyond Buffett, and one of the world's foremost Buffett experts.
Lawrence Cunningham: I think it's fascinating. When they bought a dealership last year, he announced that now Berkshire is in planes, trains, and automobiles. These are the basic transportation systems, and the car has been a part of America and American culture for a long time. It's not going away, even if we move into driverless cars.
You'll still need insurance and there will be big fights about who should be insured and who's responsible and how liability is allocated. And undoubtedly Geico and the other insurers are going to be involved in working that out.
So while the driverless car is available tomorrow -- you can drive down Route 1 in Palo Alto today in a driverless car and people at Google do -- it's going to take a decade or so more to figure out all of those liability and insurance (human agency) questions. And Geico and Berkshire will be right on the cutting edge of that.
Foolish bottom line: This isn't anything that's going to put auto insurers out of business overnight, and the smarter ones will stay in business and adjust accordingly. Buffett's still heavily inside and continuing to move even further into the auto industry -- Cunningham alluded to his recent purchase of the Van Tuyl Group. Now Berkshire Hathaway Automotive, the unit has 81 independently operated dealerships with over 100 franchises in 10 states.
It will be fascinating to see how GEICO and others respond in the future, but I'm not planning on selling any of my Berkshire position because of this "real threat."
Reporting from Omaha, I'm Motley Fool analyst Rex Moore.