The Malaysian Reserve

The carmaker should stop being a venture capitalist

Toyota (Pic By Bloomberg)

By Anjani Trivedi / BLOOMBERG

The world’s largest automaker is flinging big bets around in the hope that something sticks. It might be better off doing what it knows best.

Toyota Motor Corp said yesterday it’s deepening ties with Uber Technologies Inc, investing US$500 million (RM2.05 billion) and making Sienna minivans equipped with the tech company’s self-driving software.

A yet-to-be determined third party will operate that fleet. One day earlier, four Toyota-affiliated parts companies announced a joint venture to develop software that manages components for automated driving.

A few months before that, Toyota put US$1 billion into South-East Asia’s largest ride-hailing provider, Grab, the largest such investment by an automaker.

From chunky stakes in mobility and autonomy to financing partnerships and doubling down in China, the Japanese leader is splashing out on the future of the car. Increasingly, though, it looks like two Toyotas: One that remains squarely focused on cost-cutting and operating within the confines of a struggling world market, the other trying to spend its way out of the gloom.

The latest splurges might give the impression Toyota is shedding its conservatism toward advanced technologies.

Unlike the commitments to autonomy and self-driving made by its peers, however, the company hasn’t put a date on when it expects to see major changes of direction.

The Toyota Research Institute and its Advanced Development offshoot have poured billions of dollars into fields like artificial intelligence, but even there, advisors have expressed scepticism.

Toyota’s research and development (R&D) expenses as a proportion of net sales remain lower than peers despite its ambitions.

The hard reality is Toyota’s cost challenge, exacerbated by the slowing US market and the rising price of materials from American tariffs.

So as adjusted earning before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (Ebitda) margins shrink every year and the cost of sales seems harder to control, Toyota has struggled to boost R&D spending as a proportion of revenue.

Meanwhile, its late arrival in the Chinese market — now the world’s largest — means the carmaker also must spend aggressively there to catch up, while keeping operations lean.

Toyota’s Ebitda margins have been getting slimmer in recent years. At some point, though, the two Toyotas must meet. Everything the carmaker is doing comes from the same pocket.

While rivals have bought smaller stakes in technology companies, few had the wherewithal to invest on Toyota’s scale.

For a window into how expensive these prospects can be, look at the US$2.25 billion investment by Soft- Bank Group Corp’s Vision Fund in General Motors Co’s (GM) autonomous driving unit, GM Cruise.

That division posted a US$154 million loss in the quarter through June and its costs were US$200 million.

GM expects to spend US$1 billion on Cruise this year, and another US$1.3 billion in 2019.

Even the Vision Fund’s investment came with a rider — it’s split in two, with an initial US$900 million, and the other US$1.35 billion to follow when Cruise vehicles are “ready for commercial deployment”.

So while Toyota tries to get ahead, investors should be asking about costs and returns. Uber is still haunted by questions of viability, as my colleague Shira Ovide noted.

It’s no expert in self-driving technologies and remains miles away from full autonomy.

The latest investment is on top of stakes in Grab, JapanTaxi and Getaround Inc. Is the carmaker motivated mainly by fear of missing out?

Toyota got to be the world leader by doing what it does best. On its own initiative, the company has accumulated the greatest number of patents in autonomous driving of any carmaker.

There’s an argument that it should target every penny toward its own research and stop trying to be a venture capitalist. That way, something is sure to stick.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.