If there's one overriding theme regarding Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL), it's that it doesn't share much in the way of financial specifics. Investors and industry pundits are left to estimate important financial results including about its widely popular YouTube property and mobile-specific search revenue, to name but a couple.
Perhaps the most intriguing data Alphabet leaves investors guessing about is what it has spent on its "moonshots." As the holding company of far-reaching efforts in nanotechnology, solar-powered drones, self-driving cars -- and who knows what else in its secretive Google X unit -- Alphabet has remained mum on particulars.
That could be about to change in a big way for many Alphabet divisions, including reported plans to make its driverless car unit an entity in and of itself, which could prove to be a positive sign of things to come.
Word has it
In addition to uncertainties about a mountain of regulatory hurdles, the Alphabet unit responsible for its self-driving cars has a couple of other questions to answer -- namely, how it intends to get a return on its investment and when. According to a Bloomberg report citing a "person briefed on the strategy," self-driving cars will become a stand-alone unit next year under the Alphabet umbrella.
Assuming that comes to pass, it seems likely that driverless cars are a bit closer to hitting the streets than some may have thought. The move would also open the door to several revenue opportunities, meaning investors could be much closer to getting a picture of the financial possibilities the futuristic autos represent.
What does it mean?
Much like Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and own fleet of solar-powered drones to beam Internet access to underserved markets, Alphabet's driverless cars won't overtake digital ads as its primary revenue source. Of Alphabet's $18.7 billion in sales last quarter, $16.8 billion came from its advertising efforts.
Though on a smaller scale, Facebook is also a digital advertiser first and foremost, garnering $4.3 billion of its $4.5 billion in revenue last quarter from ads. But like Facebook, any revenue growth Alphabet can derive from its non ad-related units is welcome, and driverless cars may be next in line.
The first revenue opportunity for driverless cars could be competing with the Ubers of the ride-sharing world, beginning with enclosed areas including college campuses and military bases. It has also been suggested, and rightfully so given it's a natural, that driverless cars could be used as a platform to pipe Alphabet ads in front of a captive audience.
There is also the possibility of licensing driverless technology to others, most notably auto manufacturers like Alphabet's recently rumored deal with Ford. Should self-driving cars take off, Alphabet can and will certainly explore as yet unknown means to capitalize on its technological wonder.
Thanks, Ruth Porat
It seems investors are close to getting a much better view of more than Alphabet's soon-to-be driverless cars' financial specifics. When CFO Ruth Porat was given the reins in March, one of her primary roles was to help it "invest in a thoughtful, disciplined way in our next generation of big bets."
Under Porat's guidance, Alphabet has managed to get a better handle on spending and is finally going to answer some of investors' questions about all those far-flung efforts. Rumor has it that early next year several units, including Google Fiber, Life Sciences, and Google X, will have to pay for the Alphabet services they use to run their day-to-day operations. Presumably, requiring these units to run as separate entities and manage overhead will also result in more transparency.
Disclosing financial particulars of its business units is good for investors uncertain about the financial impact of Alphabet's moonshots. It could also be the first step in preparing for a host of spinoffs similar to the one rumored for driverless cars. As Porat put it during last quarter's conference call, "We are very much thinking [Alphabet divisions] will continue to grow and be independent entities."
The decision to make its driverless car unit a stand-alone unit under the Alphabet umbrella could be just the first of many moves to separate its disparate businesses from its core search and ad businesses. And investors will be the ultimate winners.