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Why Self-Driving Cars Could Dominate General Motors' Earnings Report

GM hasn't sold any self-driving cars yet, but its R&D efforts are likely to be a focus of Thursday's earnings report, as GM shares details of its acquisition of self-driving start-up Cruise Automation. Cruise has been testing self-driving Chevy Bolts in San Francisco. Image source: General Motors.

Start your engines! General Motors (NYSE: GM) will kick off Detroit's second-quarter earnings parade when it reports before the bell on Thursday, July 21. And while much of its report will concern the usual sales and profit figures, GM is also expected to share details of some key developments in its self-driving research efforts. 

What Wall Street expects 

Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect GM to report earnings of $1.29 per share in the second quarter, up from $1.08 a year ago. They expect revenue of $38.6 billion, up from $38.2 billion in the second quarter of 2015.

What happened with GM during the second quarter

GM's global sales results were a mixed bag. Sales at GM's European Opel brand rose 11.2%, and sales for the General's vast China operation rose 11.8%. But GM's overall U.S. sales dropped 8% in the second quarter, a drop that GM attributed largely to a planned reduction in its sales to rental-car fleets.

The details of GM's sales and margins in each of its regional business units will be important. I expect the overall picture to be positive, with no major surprises. But long-term-minded investors who listen in on GM's earnings conference call may be more interested in details of GM's acquisition of San Francisco-based start-up Cruise Automation.

GM announced in March that it had made a deal to acquire Cruise, a small start-up that had focused on self-driving technology. Despite the company's small size, about 40 employees, the reported purchase price was steep -- in the neighborhood of $1 billion. But it's believed that Cruise's technology will allow GM to make a significant leap in its ongoing development of self-driving technology, possibly allowing it to take a lead over much of the industry. 

GM's purchase of Cruise was completed in May, and the company wasted no time getting to work: Self-driving versions of GM"s upcoming electric Chevrolet Bolt have been spotted on San Francisco streets -- at least one with Cruise co-founder Kyle Vogt in the driver's seat. 

GM has promised to share details of the Cruise acquisition, including the price it paid for the start-up company, during its second-quarter earnings call on Thursday morning. 

The bottom line: A jump in profits is likely

GM's focus on profitable retail sales in the U.S. makes it likely that the company's overall profit will rise significantly from a year ago. While GM's overall sales growth in the U.S. has been sluggish, its sales this year (like last year) are at a very high level, with a mix of SUVs and pickups that should drive a very good operating profit margin.

Meanwhile, the company's growth in China appears to be back on track after several sluggish months, and its operation in Europe is showing signs of strength after a long turnaround effort. GM's future-tech efforts may dominate headlines (and investors' concerns), but the story on GM's profits here and now is likely to be a good one. 

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John Rosevear owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.