Chinese firms accelerate in race toward driverless future

AFP Newswires, April 23, 2016

 

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Chinese Internet giant LeECO Holdings Ltd unveils its internet electric battery driverless concept car ‘LeSEE’,  during a launch event in Beijing, on April 20, 2016

 

Beijing: Chinese manufacturers and internet giants are in hot pursuit of their US counterparts in the race to design driverless cars, but the route to market is still littered with potholes.

While Google has been working on autonomous vehicles for at least six years, with the likes of BMW, Volvo and Toyota in its wake, more recently Chinese businesses have entered the race, from internet search giant Baidu to manufacturer Changan.

Last week, ahead of the Beijing Auto Show opening on Monday, two self-driving Changan cars made a mountainous 2,000 kilometre (1,200 mile) journey from Chongqing in the southwest to the capital in the country’s first long-distance autonomous vehicle test.

Another Chinese internet giant, LeECO, is also venturing into autonomous technologies, unveiling Wednesday in Beijing an electric car that can park itself and be summoned to its owner’s location via smartphone.

And late last year Baidu tested China’s first locally designed driverless vehicle, a modified BMW, with a 30 kilometre ride through the streets of Beijing.

Despite China’s relatively late entry to the field, analysts believe the country could become a key market for driverless vehicles thanks to a more favourable regulatory and consumer environment.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) forecasts that global sales of driverless cars will reach 12 million by 2035, with more than a quarter sold in China.

Vehicles which automatically adjust their routes in response to real-time traffic information could solve chronic gridlock in China’s major cities, BCG’s Xavier Mosquet told AFP.

“If they believe this would ease traffic, Chinese authorities will do all they can to promote the development of this technology and then its use,” he said.

Robot taxis

Public concerns over the safety of driverless cars are far lower than elsewhere, according to a survey by Roland Berger consultants in 2015, which found 96 per cent of Chinese would consider an autonomous vehicle for almost all everyday driving, compared with 58 per cent of Americans and Germans.

In a country notorious for accidents, the promise of better safety through autonomous technologies could also be appealing.

The ultimate prize, say analysts, will be when mass transport firms such as taxi-hailing giant Uber, or its Chinese rival Didi, can deploy huge fleets of robot taxis.

“The real payoff for truly driverless technology will come when cars on the road are no longer owned by people, but are owned by fleet management services,” said Bill Russo, managing director of the consultancy firm Gao Feng.

“That’s where you want to think about taking the driver out of the equation. Mobility on demand is hugely popular here.”

In the Roland Berger survey, 51 per cent of Chinese car owners said they would prefer to use robot taxis rather than buy a new vehicle themselves, compared with 26 per cent of Americans.

With a ready market, China may soon become the top location for companies to refine driverless technology.

Swedish manufacturer Volvo, owned by China’s Geely since 2010, this month announced plans to test drive up to 100 of its vehicles on Chinese roads this year.

Changan, a partner of Ford, is set to roll out commercial autonomous vehicles for motorways from 2018, while mass production of driverless city cars is projected to begin in 2025.

‘Does the car choose?’

Baidu, meanwhile, says it will launch self-driving buses by 2018, which will operate on fixed routes in select cities in China.

Like Google, the internet giant already owns detailed road maps and has experience in electronic security, and a company spokeswoman told AFP it had had “very positive feedback” from the government.

But analysts are more cautious, predicting slow-moving autonomous vehicles will not appear in towns until at least 2020.

Production costs were still too high to make a robot taxi fleet viable, BCG’s Mosquet said.

“There are still many questions to be resolved” before fully autonomous vehicles can be put into public use, said Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst for IHS.

He pointed to “chaotic traffic situations” on roads shared with cyclists and pedestrians, and less-than-adequate infrastructure.

Technology will be the first to see solutions, he said, but that still left regulation and issues around liability and insurance to be addressed.

For some, there are moral dilemmas as well.

“If you have someone jumping out in front of an autonomous car, does the car have to choose between killing that person, or swerving and crashing and killing the passenger?” asked Robin Zhu, senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.

“If your car could choose to kill you, would you get in it?”

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-04-chinese-firms-driverless-future.html#jCp

China Seen Laying Down $15 Billion Bet on Electric Vehicles

Bloomberg News, December 16, 2015

China to be `epicenter of electrification,’ analyst says

BYD, Zotye among biggest sellers of electric cars in China

China has found electric cars a tough sell even after lavishing consumers with subsidies and privileges. After almost certainly failing to meet a target to have half a million of such vehicles on its roads by year end, its next act is to achieve a 10-fold increase by the end of the decade.

The electric vehicles in service will fall about 26 percent short of its year-end target, according to estimates from the science ministry and state-backed auto association. To meet its 2020 goal of five million EVs, the government will speed up the construction of charging stations, reducing a major inconvenience for urban residents who don’t have personal garages to charge their cars.

“China will be the epicenter for electrification of the auto industry globally,” said Bill Russo, Shanghai-based managing director at Gao Feng Advisory Co., who estimates that China would have invested 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) by 2020 on new-energy vehicles.

President Xi Jinping has designated electric vehicles as a strategic initiative in a bid to upgrade the auto industry and create challengers to Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Co. The government is increasing spending after signs that the combination of research grants, consumer subsidies and infrastructure investments is starting to yield results. New-energy vehicle production surged fourfold to 279,200 units in the first 11 months, even as oil traded near levels last seen during the global financial crisis.

Local Winners

That has benefited automakers like BYD Co., Zoyte Auto and BAIC Motor Corp., which have led sales of electric cars. BYD, backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., would have turned a loss in 2014 and this year if not for EV subsidies from the central government, according to Barclays Plc. Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. said last month that it would target new-energy vehicles to make up 90 percent of sales by 2020.

The government incentives have lured consumers like Zhang Peng, 30, who decided to buy BAIC’s EV200 electric car after trying without success for two years to win a license plate in the bimonthly lottery held by the Beijing government. EVs are exempt from the ballot, which has worse odds than roulette.

Zhang also received 90,000 yuan in matching grants from the central and local governments, or almost half of the 208,922 yuan sticker price for BAIC’s EV200 electric car. The model costs about 7.5 yuan to run every 100 kilometers (62 miles), compared with an estimated 39 yuan for an equivalent gasoline-powered 1.6-liter Toyota Corolla, according to calculations based on the published fuel-economy rating and Beijing pump prices.

Battery Suppliers

The burgeoning demand has also helped battery suppliers such as South Korea’s Samsung SDI Co. and LG Chem Ltd., which supplies SAIC Motor Corp. and Chongqing Changan Automobile Co. Panasonic Corp. said it is considering building a car-battery factory in China to supply lithium-ion batteries.

Among local component makers, Wanxiang Qianchao Co. and Hunan Corun New Energy Co. have more than doubled in Shanghai trading this year as investors bet the surge in electric vehicle demand will boost demand. BYD has climbed 34 percent this year and Geely Automobile has surged 79 percent in Hong Kong trading, compared with the 8.4 percent decline in the benchmark Hang Seng Index.

Global automakers are beginning to get into the act. Volkswagen AG, the largest foreign carmaker by sales, has said it will introduce 15 locally produced new-energy vehicles in the next three to five years in the country. Ford Motor Co. said this month it’s investing $4.5 billion globally in electrified vehicles.

‘Foreigners Coming’

“In the initial stage it was mainly local automakers competing with each other in the electric-car segment, but now the foreign players are coming,” said Ouyang Minggao, director of the Tsinghua New Energy Vehicle Center. “All kinds of electric cars will be here soon, including plug-in hybrids, which will lead to very big challenges to local automakers.”

The Chinese government is not alone in setting aggressive targets for alternative-energy transportation. President Barack Obama in 2011 called for one million electrified vehicles in the U.S. by 2015, a target that the administration scaled back in March after low gasoline prices reduced the cost advantage of plug-in and hybrid vehicles.

China, though, has stood out in terms of the scale of the state’s financial support. The country has invested about 37 billion yuan into the new-energy vehicle segment over the past five years, according to Gao Feng’s Russo, who estimates the government will devote another 63 billion yuan by 2020.

Funding Plan

The central government released a plan on Wednesday detailing funding for local governments to construct charging facilities, tied to the number of new-energy vehicles they sell.

Automakers will have to play by China’s rules if they want a piece of the market, even if they don’t believe in electric cars. The government has mandated the lowering of average fuel consumption to 5 liters by 2020, from 6.9 liters per 100 km this year.

“There is really no choice for the automakers, if they are required to meet the more stringent emission standards by 2020,” said Steve Man, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “Other technologies with the stringent emission standards won’t get you all the way to target.”

How China Brands Took Over the World’s Hottest SUV Market

Bloomberg News, April 16, 2015

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BYD Co.’s Sport-Utility Vehicles

BYD Co. S6 sport-utility vehicles (SUV) move along the production line at the company’s assembly plant in the Pingshan district of Shenzhen, China. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

After years of losing out to foreign brands, China’s automakers are winning in the world’s hottest SUV market by employing a tried-and-tested strategy: offering them cheap.

By flooding the market with comparable models at lower prices, Chinese automakers accounted for eight of the 10 bestselling sport utility vehicles in the first quarter, crowding out global nameplates like Toyota Motor Corp.’s RAV4 and Honda Motor Co.’s CR-V.

Chinese-branded SUV sales more than doubled in the first quarter to overtake foreign nameplates in the segment this year, accounting for 56 percent of all deliveries, according to data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. At the Shanghai auto show next week, Honda will unveil a full-sized SUV concept that will compete for attention with local offerings like BYD Co.’s new Song and Yuan SUVs.

“A significant number of Chinese consumers are looking for a more affordable alternative to premium-priced foreign SUVs,” said Bill Russo, a Shanghai-based managing director at consultant Gao Feng Advisory. “Foreign automakers now need to price more aggressively as the market matures and becomes more hyper-competitive.”

Almost half of the new and refreshed passenger vehicles slated for debut this year in China are SUVs, with about three-quarters of them from local automakers, according to estimates by Bloomberg Intelligence.

Cheaper SUVs

Global automakers are competing against names little known outside China: Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Co.’s Ruifeng S3, BAIC Motor Corp.’s Huansu and Chongqing Changan Automobile Co.’s CS35 all rank in the top 10 by sales. Great Wall Motor Co.’s H6, the most popular SUV in China, costs about half the price of Volkswagen AG’s Tiguan.

The average price of the bestselling Chinese SUVs in the first quarter was was 82,900 yuan ($13,380), versus 167,300 yuan for the foreign makes, according to dealership quotations compiled by Autohome, a car-pricing website.

The addition of new models is being accompanied by a surge in production. Annual output of SUVs in China is estimated to reach more than 7.04 million units in 2018, up from 4.32 million last year, according to researcher IHS Automotive.

Rare Win

The SUV success represents a rare win for China’s automakers, which have struggled despite heavy government intervention. Foreign companies are required to set up joint ventures with local carmakers to operate in the country, sharing profits and technology.

Utility vehicle sales accounted for 24 percent of the total passenger-vehicle market in the first quarter. Local carmakers have been fast to catch the shift in consumer preference from traditional sedans to more spacious crossovers, and fill the gap in the market for lower-priced alternatives.

“It’s about time Chinese automakers gained back some territory after losing out to foreign brands for so many years,” said Cao He, a Beijing-based analyst at China Minzu Securities Co. “But they have to watch their backs and make sure the growth is sustainable and they don’t put all their eggs in one basket.”

Toyota Poised to Lose Global Sales Lead to VW on China

Bloomberg News, January 22, 2015

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(Bloomberg) — Toyota Motor Corp., which fended off Volkswagen AG to remain the world’s top automaker in 2014, may lose the sales crown as early as this year as it falls behind in China, the world’s biggest auto market.

Toyota is predicting its global deliveries will decline 1 percent in 2015 to 10.15 million vehicles, or just 10,000 units more than what Volkswagen sold worldwide last year. A new factory the German company is opening this year in Changsha, China, will add capacity for another 300,000 vehicles annually.

As Volkswagen and General Motors Co. add factories to bolster their already-dominant position in China, Toyota President Akio Toyoda’s strategy of foregoing new car plants until at least next year could result in the first shakeup in auto-sales leadership since 2011. Toyota ranks sixth among global automakers in China and sells less than one-third as many vehicles as its two main competitors in China.

“The difference is that Volkswagen has a jet engine strapped to its back called ’China’,” said Bill Russo, Shanghai-based managing director at Gao Feng Advisory Co. “Toyota, unfortunately, is in a position of weakness when it comes to the China market. It would be almost impossible to hold on to a number one position without being in the lead in China, and Toyota’s not even in that league.”

Worldwide sales for Toyota, including at its Hino Motors Ltd. and Daihatsu Motor Co. units, climbed 3 percent to 10.23 million vehicles in 2014, according to a company statement. Volkswagen last week reported a 4.2 percent gain to 10.14 million vehicles, that included its two heavy-truck units. GM followed with sales of 9.92 million units, up 2.1 percent. Volkswagen and GM haven’t announced projections for this year.

China Capacity

Toyota, which hasn’t built an assembly plant in China since 2012 and faces a self-imposed moratorium on new factories until next year, will fall behind even further as Volkswagen and GM step up their expansion plans.

GM has announced plans to add five new plants in China by 2018 even though President Dan Ammann said the market is “maturing rapidly.”

Volkswagen expects to raise its China plant capacity to more than 4 million vehicles by 2018 from 3.1 million at end 2013, according to the company. Mainland China and Hong Kong accounted for a record 3.67 million deliveries at Volkswagen group last year, up 12.4 percent and extending the country’s lead as the German manufacturer’s largest single market.

Sales Target

By comparison, Toyota missed its sales projection for 1.1 million units in China in 2014, even as the Corolla and the Levin compact cars helped boost sales 13 percent to 1.03 million units. The company kept its China sales target unchanged for this year.

Even though Toyota may cede the sales leadership, it still outearns Volkswagen. Analysts estimate Toyota earned a profit of 1.96 trillion yen ($16.7 billion) last calendar year, compared with 10.7 billion euros ($12.4 billion) at Volkswagen.

“Their focus is not No. 1,” said Peggy Furusaka, a Tokyo-based auto-credit analyst at Moody’s Investors Service. “Toyota is more concerned about keeping profitability than chasing numbers. So for coming years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Toyota selling fewer cars than Volkswagen.”

Toyota’s also-ran status in China is compounded by threats by its dealers to drop out of its network, citing poor sales and a lack of profit.

Dealer Threats

As many as 10 percent of dealers for one of Toyota’s China ventures could abandon the brand, according to the China Automobile Dealers Association. Among the 523 distributors in the FAW-Toyota Motor Sales Co. group, 95 percent are losing money, with some dealers stopping sales or shutting down altogether because of the losses, the state-backed dealer’s group said.

Vehicle sales growth slowed last year in China in tandem with the nation’s weakest economic growth since 1990. Deliveries are forecast to gain 8 percent to about 21.3 million passenger vehicles this year, according to the state-backed China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

“As long as China is growing rapidly, Toyota will need to build new factories there,” said Yoshiaki Kawano, an analyst with IHS Automotive in Tokyo. “They are probably reserving some energy for growth in the longer term, as they are trying to improve the efficiency at their existing plants.”

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Alexandra Ho in Shanghai at aho113@bloomberg.net; Ma Jie in Tokyo at jma124@bloomberg.net; Masatsugu Horie in Osaka at mhorie3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chua Kong Ho at kchua6@bloomberg.net Suresh Seshadri

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