2016 was the year of autonomous vehicles

The day most people use autonomous vehicles to zip around likely remains many years in the future. But 2016 saw the public profile of self-driving cars and trucks start to crescendo amid high-profile tests that offered a taste of a robotic future.

Beyond just hype, this frenzy of activity forced a growing number of publicly-traded companies to start reckoning with the  potential impact of this new technology. As such, the number of filings in 2016 that referenced “autonomous vehicles” surged dramatically. That wave has continued to rise during the first two months of 2017 as companies from a growing range of industries think that the prospect of self-driving vehicles is serious enough that they need to make some kind of disclosure to investors.

In 2016, Footnoted counted 128 filings that made some kind of reference to “autonomous vehicles.” That was up from just 37 in 2015, and 23 in 2014. Between 2000 and 2013, there were a total of 75 references to autonomous vehicles in filings. That number looks to take another giant leap this year. Already through March 7, there were 54 filings with autonomous vehicle disclosures.

Much of this growing interest has been catalyzed by the very public demonstrations of self-driving cars and trucks by companies such as Google’s parent company Alphabet and ride-sharing giant Uber. There were also high-profile demonstrations of autonomous trucks from such traditional international brands as Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.

Now, it’s important to note that part of this increase has been the result of companies who have included autonomous vehicles in multiple filings. In 2016, Ford Motor Co. alone accounted for 21 of the filings out of those 128. But, that is also a sign of just how aggressively Ford has started to pursue this idea.

The company made its first AV reference in its March 27, 2015 proxy filing where it disclosed that:

“In the same way, we are working to make people’s lives better by addressing the challenges of a rising population and the growing numbers of vehicles on the road, particularly in urban areas. To help address this issue, we are working to connect cars and roads through technology. The potential benefits from vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity are tremendous as the automobile becomes integrated into the broader transportation system.

We also have introduced Ford Smart Mobility, which is our plan to take Ford to the next level in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience and big data. We are taking a leadership role in these areas to, once again, do our part in helping to change the way the world moves and to make people’s lives better.”

The company has since then steadily made references to its autonomous vehicle efforts, with one its biggest disclosures coming in an 8-K on February 10, 2017 when it announced a $1 billion investment in a secretive startup named “Argo AI”:

“Founded by former Google and Uber leaders, Argo AI will include roboticists and engineers from inside and outside of Ford working to develop a new software platform for Ford’s fully autonomous vehicle coming in by former Google and Uber leaders, Argo AI is bringing together some of the most experienced roboticists and engineers working in autonomy from inside and outside of Ford.”

But while Ford has been the most vocal on the subject in its filings, it is responsible for only 2 of the 54 filings that mention the technology in 2017. That’s a sign that even more companies are focused on autonomous vehicles now.

So who is thinking about autonomous vehicles? And do they see them as friend or foe?

Another big chunk of filings came from financial companies who held some kind of stake in either automotive companies or some other industry that might be affected in some way. These tend to be a mixed bagged, depending on their investment portfolio, as to whether they see autonomous vehicles as a threat or opportunity.

Insurance companies seem to be a bit nervous about the whole robot car and truck thing. Baldwin & Lyons worried that the whole AV thing could crimp its insurance business:

Technological advances, including those specific to the transportation industry, could present us with added competitive risks. An increase in accident prevention technologies and the growth of autonomous or partially autonomous vehicles could reduce the amount of accidents over time and shift the liability from the owner of the vehicle to the manufacturer, which would cause automobile insurance to become a smaller portion of our overall property and casualty insurance book of business.”

Other insurance companies making AV disclosures this year included Progressive Corp. and Horace Mann Educators Corp. On the other hand, Nationwide Variable Insurance Trust is happy because it has invested in Sunny Optical, a company whose business that makes components being used in autonomous vehicles. Kar Auctions Services, which auctions off used and salvaged cars, also worried that AVs could mean people buy fewer cars, which would be bad for its business.

But many others see this a big, emerging market. Companies like Nvidia, Harman International Industries Inc., Stmicroelectronics, and Vicor Corp. are ramping up new products or partnerships aimed at AVs. As Vicor told investors in its 10-K filed on March 7, it’s “pursuing opportunities in emerging market segments, including: autonomous vehicles.”

As with many tech trends, it remains to be seen how real this enthusiasm is, and whether it will translate into a meaningful impact for these companies or their investors. But for now, it’s safe to say that autonomous vehicles are going to be forcing more and more companies to think long and hard about whether their business is ready for the future.