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China’s tech titans set sights on car innovation

China’s tech titans set sights on car innovation

 

by Charles Clover and Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing

 

For the past five years, Chinas leading internet groups Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have raced to put their lucrative apps on smartphone screens.

However, they are now turning their attention to building intelligent and connected vehicles — the so-called smartphones on wheels — as operating software shapes up to become the next big battleground in the car market.

So far, Shanghai-based Banma, an Alibaba joint venture with Shanghai carmaker SAIC, has taken the lead in this push to develop car “operating systems”, which include touchscreens, GPS maps and other functions normally found in smartphones.

The Banma software is known as AliOS — it changed its name from YunOS Auto last month — and was fitted in the Roewe RX5 sport utility vehicle, which was billed at its July 2016 launch as “the world’s first mass-produced internet car”.

Sales of the RX5 have soared: by July 2017 it had become the sixth-best selling sport utility vehicle in its class in China, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, while AliOS claims 300,000 users.

Seventy five per cent of customers said they bought the RX5 because of the operating system and the large screen inside, according to an owner satisfaction survey.

Next year Banma plans to open up AliOS to developers and carmakers, mimicking a time-honoured strategy of the internet industry designed to drive adoption, similar to Google Android.

This month, Banma also announced an additional partnership with French-China joint venture Dongfeng Peugeot-Citroën. Citroën will launch its first internet car based on AliOS next year, the two companies said.

Alex Shi, Banma chief executive, says the companys plan was to “empower the [manufacturer] and end-user with an Alibaba ecosystem and eco-data”.

He says non-driving related software such as entertainment and shopping is likely to be a very big part of a cars appeal very soon. “Maybe as big as non-calling related apps are on a smartphone,” he adds.

The companys rival Tencent last month announced a joint venture with Guangzhou Automobile Group Company in what appears to be a strikingly similar plan — to “jointly build an intelligent and connected car brand with uniqueness and competitiveness”.

“There definitely is a battle for this space,” says Chi Tsang, head of internet research at HSBC in Hong Kong.

“Many internet companies think the next computing platform will be the automobile, and when they own the OS [operating system] in a car, they have a chance to own the platform.”

The move by the Chinese technology groups may also unsettle the big western car groups as they worry about ceding control of the operating systems and in-car apps.

Manufacturing cars — with their numerous safety, environmental and supply chain constraints — remains far more complicated than making smartphones, leading several executives across the motor industry to express a desire not to be “downgraded” to mere hardware companies.

In China this is a serious worry as “connectivity” is likely to increasingly drive car sales in the country. Software will even trump hardware quality when buyers are looking for cars, according to research by McKinsey, the international consultancy.

“Chinese consumers are more connected than their counterparts in Europe and the US, therefore connectivity in the car is a natural extension of their daily connected life,” says Andy Gao, an expert on the Chinese car industry for McKinsey.

Sixty-four per cent of Chinese consumers polled by McKinsey in a study published last month said they would switch brands for better in-car connectivity, compared with 37 per cent of Americans and 19 per cent of Germans.

In China, “connectivity is a must-have feature”, according to the report.

Chinese companies are also busy with alternatives to car software such as Apples Carplay and Googles Android Auto that integrate smartphones with car display screens.

Baidu, Chinas answer to Google, launched Baidu CarLife in 2015, similar to Carplay, and has since launched DuerOS, which Baidu described as an artificial intelligence platform with speech recognition.

However, Baidus main effort to access the car industry is from the much more demanding direction of driverless cars. The companys Apollo driverless car platform includes hardware, software and cloud data services for autonomous vehicles.

Operating systems such as AliOS are not as ambitious as autonomous driving software, but still offer internet companies an important way to position their lucrative apps into a car.

Just as Windows and Android were the gateways for software to become available on PCs and smartphones, Mr Shi says that the operating system will be the car's internet link, and all “apps” will have to be compatible with it.

However, he does not foresee any operating systems dominating the car industry in the same way that Windows dominates personal computers.

“Internet companies will empower auto manufacturers,” he says. “But I think big automakers will still be the top players in [the] automotive [industry].” 

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