A promised showdown between the CEOs of German luxury automaker Daimler and ride-hailing firm Uber, Silicon Valley’s most valuable private company, turned into more of a wary courtship when the two met publicly Wednesday. Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick were interviewed together onstage at Axel Springer NOAH, a two-day conference in Berlin of venture capitalists and technology companies.
Both ruled out the prospect of one taking over the other and denied a German magazine report in March that Uber was considering ordering as many as 100,000 cars from the automaker. They sought common ground in many of their comments, while taking good-natured jabs at one another as inevitable competitors.
“Cars are not going away soon, and companies like Uber are not going to be making them,” Uber’s Kalanick said.
Zetsche said he had met Kalanick several times and described him as a “frenemy,” which he defined as a combination of friend and enemy, before joking, “We call that marriage in German.” Turning more serious, the Daimler executive said: “We are competitors, of course. There might be many areas where we are competitors in the future,” but added they were also friends.
The rise of ride-hailing is widely seen as a long-term threat to individual car ownership by many potential drivers, cutting long-term demand for new cars from automakers. Daimler has responded by investing in a variety of new ride-hailing and connected car businesses that potentially compete with Uber.
With this month’s announcement of a $3.5 billion investment in Uber by a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund and a partnership deal with automaker Toyota Motor, which included an investment stake for an undisclosed amount, Uber’s private market valuation has soared.
At $62.5 billion, the ride-hailing firm is now potentially worth more than the market capitalizations of automakers Bayerische Motoren Werke, General Motors and Honda Motor, and close to those of Volkswagen, Ford Motor and Daimler. Toyota, the world’s most valuable automaker, is worth around $172 billion at current stock prices.
When asked whether Daimler would consider taking a stake in Uber, Zetsche said his company only makes strategic investments it controls, while Kalanick said he would not be interested in Daimler taking a “dominant” position in Uber.
Justify Your Valuation
In one of the testier moments, Zetsche asked Kalanick to justify how Uber was worth roughly as much as Daimler’s $70 billion stock market capitalization, despite being a seven-year old company that has never produced a profit.
Kalanick repeated recent comments that Uber is profitable in at least 200 cities it operates in, but is investing heavily in markets such as China: “In the developed markets, we are profitable; in the developing markets, we are massively unprofitable.”
Uber entered its 467th city in Accra, Ghana, this week.
An onstage interviewer asked him whether his investors ever ask him when he plans to become profitable. Kalanick acknowledged that “sometimes investors ask.”
The Uber chief said it was largely a matter of entering enough cities, for long enough, to generate the volume of usage of its online taxi and ride-hailing services to turn a profit.
Kalanick, who in a TV interview this year ruled out an initial public offering at his company in 2016, reiterated, “We are going to IPO as late as possible.”
The moderator demanded to know how many years before Uber would hold an IPO. Kalanick replied: “It is going to be somewhere between one year and 10,” appearing to reopen the door to a possible IPO as early as next year.
The two executives were both asked whether Uber had ordered 100,000 self-driving cars from Daimler, as Manager Magazin reported in March. Reuters later confirmed that Uber had sounded out automakers, according to an auto industry source.
Kalanick denied this, saying, “I have not signed a $10 billion check to buy 100,000 S-Classes,” referring to Daimler’s flagship car model. Zetsche quickly followed by saying, “No, I can’t” confirm the report that Uber was considering the massive order.
Asked about his ongoing legal battles with local regulators in Germany, Kalanick said he frequently reminds European regulators when he meets with them that the same legal issues came up previously in the U.S. and were eventually settled.
A state court in Germany ruled Uber’s alternative taxi service using nonprofessional drivers illegal last year. “I am very patient here in Germany,” Kalanick said.
Kalanick and Zetsche initially were chauffeured up to the stage in a bright yellow Trabi, a vintage four-door sedan that was once the most popular car made in the former East Germany. “I have got to get a couple of those cars on the system,” Kalanick said of the idea of supplying Trabis to Uber drivers to transport local passengers.