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AI to energize next mobility revolution

By He Wei in Boao, Hainan | China Daily | Updated: 2018-04-11 10:55
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China's high-flying new energy car startups are looking at scalable vehicle handover this year as they promote data-backed solutions to enhance mobility.

Xpeng Motors and WM Motor Technology Co Ltd are both on track to deliver their first batch of electric vehicles in the second half of 2018, according to their respective founders.

"The number of vehicles to be delivered to customers depends on the level of manufacturing excellence," He Xiaopeng, chairman of Xpeng Motors, said during the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2018 on Monday.

Xpeng, whose investors include Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and a host of tech luminaries and venture capital firms, gained Series B funding of more than 2.2 billion yuan ($349 million) in January to accelerate the rollout of its G3 model, the first prototype electric SUV that features intelligent driving, self-parking and mobile phone-enabled remote-control functions.

The company will announce the next round of financing very soon, said He, who was an executive at Alibaba before founding the carmaker four years ago.

In a similar vein, WM, backed by search engine Baidu Inc, is jockeying to become the first company to mass-produce 100,000 new energy vehicles, said chairman Shen Hui.

"I do not agree with the idea that NEVs face overcapacity," Shen told a panel discussion during the forum on Monday. "It would be heartening news if 100,000 electric smart cars are produced per year, and we aim to be the first one."

According to Shen, self-driving vehicles will be safer than those with human drivers if the mass production of driverless cars is realized with abundant data in place. Batteries are also a safer choice than traditional gas tanks.

A seasoned auto expert who was once at the helm of Volvo's China operation, Shen said the next wave of the mobility revolution will be geared by artificial intelligence-equipped electric vehicles.

"Autos are perhaps the most complicated smart hardware. The biggest challenge today is that the software applicable on mobile phones is not easily transferable to cars," he said.

He said that driving would be a minor function embedded in futuristic, data-rich vehicles, which utilize troves of data to meet a variety of other needs and transform cars into essential mobile spaces.

"In the future, auto production will be inseparable from software design, sales and operations, with use of data being the core," he said.

China's internet giants are placing big bets on smart vehicles as a critical point of entry to consumer data they could in theory capitalize on through business endeavors. The increasingly ubiquitous tech-auto tie-up could in turn help satisfy Chinese users' big appetite for in-car connectivity features.

Around 64 percent of Chinese consumers polled by consultancy McKinsey said they are willing to switch brands for better in-car connectivity functions. That contrasts with 37 percent in the United States and 19 percent in Germany.

Shen said that the ongoing trade friction sparked by Washington would hurt US auto businesses as they have cashed in more on the Chinese market than from anywhere else, be it in the realms of vehicle production, service or spare parts sales.

"If the US really wants to shut the door to the Chinese market, it is good news for us local new energy carmakers, as we know more about our customers who are particularly willing to embrace new things," said Shen.

But He said he welcomes foreign rivals such as the likes of Tesla Inc to enter China and seize growth opportunities together.

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