The success of Tesla in the U.S. and the development of driver-less car technologies by Apple and Google are also attracting all manner of technology companies into the Chinese auto market, the world’s biggest. Some envision cars developing into “mobility service platforms,” in which passengers receive data and services in addition to being moved from point A to B.
That could play to the strengths of technology companies and the huge and growing Chinese auto market could be the perfect laboratory in which to experiment with new services and business models, according to Bill Russo, managing director at Shanghai-based auto consultant Gao Feng Advisory.
Russo compares today’s autos to the mobile phones of a decade ago, when apps started to gain in popularity. “As cars become mobility service platforms, the technology on board will become more sophisticated,” he says. Technology companies could contract out auto production to make vehicles, but then earn recurring revenue by providing car owners with data products and Internet services. “Apple makes money not just on the device, but on all the services that flow through it,” he said.
It’s definitely a vision in search of details, but plenty of technology companies are jumping into the fray. Electronics contract manufacturer Foxconn Technology, Internet service portal Tencent and China Harmony New Energy Auto have set up a joint venture to build alternative energy cars. The partnership is designed to leverage different strengths: Foxconn’s component supply chain, Tencent’s infotainment and telematics systems that could improve vehicle’s connectivity and Harmony Auto’s after-sales network for electric vehicles. In January, Daniel Kirchert, head of Infiniti in China, joined the alliance.
Chinese tech billionaire Jia Yueting also has automotive ambitions. The chairman and founder of Le Holdings Co., which makes Web-enabled televisions and smartphones and offers cloud and e-commerce services, is a major investor in Los Angeles-based Faraday Future, which is building a 900-acre factory near Las Vegas, Nevada. LeEco, which has developed its own electric vehicles, is preparing to apply for a production license in China and also plans to manufacture its cars overseas.
Given all the new entrants, it is easy to understand why NextEV founder Li is wary of the competition, even with financial backers like Sequoia. Li has hired former Cisco Systems Inc. Chief Technology Officer Padmasree Warrior to lead development and U.S. operations and has inked a deal to outsource production to Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Co.
“They’re realistic, they’re seasoned, smart people with a lot of money and they’re unafraid of the challenge,” Michael Dunne, head of strategy and investment advisory firm Dunne Automotive Ltd., said of NextEV. “In fact, they seem to be embracing it.”
Li’s early life didn’t fit the profile of a tech entrepreneur. He spent his early years herding cattle in a mountain village in Anhui province, where he grew up with his grandparents. A talented student, he left the rural China to attend the prestigious Peking University, where he earned a degree in social sciences while supporting himself with part-time work like selling office supplies to Apple Inc.
Before starting NextEV, Li co-founded and built Bitauto Holdings Ltd. into the country’s biggest provider of online car pricing data for dealers. The company went public in New York in 2010. Li and Bitauto have invested in more than 40 companies in China including used-car business, financing services and car-sharing platform such as Didapinche.
Li says NextEV is an opportunity to rethink the electric car as not just a transportation vehicle but as a digital platform.
“Traditional auto manufacturers treat the car as 95 percent transportation tool,” Li said. “Tesla’s cars have perhaps 20 percent to 30 percent content that are not related to transportation,” he said referring to such things as mobile connectivity and touchscreens that access car maintenance services. “My aim is to boost that to more than 50 percent.”
NextEV has produced an electric Formula E series racer, but hasn’t yet disclosed its plans for launching an electric car aimed at the consumer market. Meantime, the race is engaged by a gaggle of tech companies to prove they can be players in Chinese autos.
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