Getting under the hood of Amazon's auto ambitions

Updated August 05, 2019

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Amazon.com Inc is expanding its transportation prowess to do virtually everything short of building a car. — AFP/File
Amazon.com Inc is expanding its transportation prowess to do virtually everything short of building a car. — AFP/File

Amazon.com Inc is expanding its transportation prowess to do virtually everything short of building a car.

While Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has said little publicly about the company’s ambitions in the sector, the strategy is aimed at leveraging Amazon’s strengths in logistics, cloud computing and digital services together with new interests in related fields from robotics to manufacturing, according to more than two dozen people, including Amazon executives and industry executives familiar with the strategy, and a Reuters analysis of Amazon’s patent activity.

With these new investments and alliances up and down the auto supply chain — and by hiring key auto industry veterans and amassing a robust patent portfolio — Amazon is positioning itself to challenge corporate customers and partners ranging from United Parcel Service Inc to Uber Technologies Inc.

Businesses such as Amazon Web Services and Fulfillment by Amazon started as internal efforts to cut costs and improve efficiency in serving consumers, and later expanded to corporate customers. However, companies working closely with Amazon also risk losing business to the online retailer as its transportation expertise grows, according to some analysts and industry insiders.

Corporate customers “should be very scared” of Amazon’s move into the dashboard, said John Ellis, a transportation consultant and former global technologist at Ford Motor Co. As consumers pay less attention to horsepower and more to streaming content and services, he expects more consumers “won’t really care whether you’re in a Ford or a Chrysler or a Chevrolet or a BMW.” Ned Curic, a former Toyota Motor Corp executive recruited by Amazon to oversee Alexa Auto in 2017, said in a written response to Reuters that the company is “always looking for ways to more closely integrate Amazon services if we think it’ll bring value to the customer.”

PATENT PUSH

A Reuters analysis of more than 5,000 patents granted to Amazon from December 2016 through May 2019 by the US Patent and Trademark Office indicates at least 210 of those patents cover transportation-related topics from drones to automated ground vehicles. The auto-related patent push outpaced tech rivals Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google, whose sister company Waymo is a self-driving pioneer.

Amazon was granted several patents that involve the transport of passengers, including a 2017 patent to provide an on-demand transportation service through a network of self-driving vehicles — a potential competitor to Uber, Lyft Inc and Waymo, as well as major auto customers such as Volkswagen (VW), Ford and General Motors Co.

Patents do not always evolve into specific businesses and processes, Amazon said.

“Like many companies, we file a number of forward-looking patent applications that explore the full possibilities of new technology. Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services,” an Amazon spokesman said in a statement.

The patent push comes with a boost in Amazon’s transportation-related investments. Since Feb­ruary, it has joined other major investors in providing nearly $2 billion in funding to three high-profile start-ups: electric truck maker Rivian Automotive, self-driving systems developer Aurora and food delivery firm Deliveroo.

In the past two years, Amazon has built out its transportation ecosystem further with the acquisition of three start-ups Dispatch, Canvas and Tapzo while investing hundreds of millions of dollars in at least nine others, including Shuttl, an Indian company developing an app to help commuters find seats on buses. Amazon’s business partners in the sector include automotive suppliers such as Aptiv, Panasonic Corp and Nvidia Corp, big transportation providers such as Uber and Avis, and self-driving heavy truck start-ups Embark and China’s TuSimple.

INDUSTRIAL CLOUD

The company, through its $33bn Amazon Web Services unit, also is rapidly expanding its business with corporate customers, notably through two major cloud-based initiatives this year with Ford and VW.

The strategic alliance with VW, which includes German supplier Siemens AG, aims to create an “industrial cloud” to digitally connect the automaker’s far-flung manufacturing operations — 122 plants worldwide — and up to 30,000 supplier factories, according to Jonathan Allen, head of professional services in AWS’ global automotive practice.

Volkswagen in March said AWS cloud-based services, including machine learning and data analytics, would help the automaker to “increase plant efficiency and uptime, improve production flexibility and increase vehicle quality.” AWS has been one of Amazon’s fastest-growing, highest-margin businesses and provides a platform for corporate customers — from BMW and Toyota to Avis and Formula One — to manage, analyse and in some cases monetise data.

Gavin Sherry, CEO of Ford’s Autonomic web services subsidiary, said the No. 2 US automaker can learn a lot from Amazon, which is working with Autonomic and Ford to build a cloud-based platform for the transportation industry.

“They have the relationships, credibility and know-how that we will need in order to fulfil our vision,” he told Reuters.

ALEXA + LOGISTICS

Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, is taking a leading role in the company’s drive to get inside cars.

Amazon is collaborating with a number of automakers to embed Alexa in vehicles, and has made deals with GM, Ford, Volvo and Honda Motor Co Ltd to allow online orders to be delivered to owners’ cars.

“Our goal is to bring Alexa to as many vehicles as possible, either through direct integrations with automakers or through automotive accessories with Alexa built in,” Curic said.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Curic added, including “bringing Alexa to more vehicles and accessories, building new Alexa features for the car and launching our own automotive product, Echo Auto.”

Electric vehicles are also now a part of Amazon’s strategy for connecting homes to its network. Amazon is supplying home charging systems for Audi’s e-tron mid-sized electric SUV — a deal that could be a step toward managing vehicle fleets, said Roland Berger partner Stephan Keese.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 5th, 2019