China is shaping up to be the first real test of Big Tech’s ambitions in the world of carmaking, with giants from Huawei Technologies Co. to Baidu Inc. plowing almost $19 billion into electric and self-driving vehicle ventures widely seen as the future of transport.
While Apple Inc. has long had plans for its own car and Alphabet Inc. has Waymo, its autonomous driving unit, the size -- and speed -- of the move by China’s tech titans puts them at the vanguard of that broader push. The lure is an industry that’s becoming increasingly high tech as it pivots away from the combustion engine, with sensors and operating systems making cars more like computers, and the prospect of autonomy re-envisioning how people use will them.
As the world’s biggest market for new-energy cars, China is a key battlefield. Established automakers like Volkswagen Group and General Motors Co. are already slogging it out with local upstarts such as market darling Nio Inc. and Xpeng Inc. Over the past three months, Huawei, smartphone giant Xiaomi Corp., Baidu -- which runs China’s top search engine and a mapping app -- and even Apple’s Taiwanese manufacturing partner Foxconn have joined the fray, forging tie-ups and unveiling their own carmaking plans.
Nowhere was that more on display than at last month’s Shanghai Auto Show, which has become one of the world’s premier events for showcasing the hottest new trends in the automotive sector. Visitors queued for hours to access the pavilions of Huawei and Baidu, thronging their displays and snapping pictures of sensor systems, high-tech dashboards and model vehicles. But despite the intense interest, the era of the new car is a hyper-competitive one in China, and tech giants have a lot to prove.
“There’s a big element of faith in the tech companies’ bets,” said Stephen Dyer, managing director of consultancy AlixPartners in Shanghai and a former Ford Motor Co. executive. “This is a matter of creating something new that doesn’t exist now. That’s where the element of faith comes into play.”
Huawei has been at the fore, recently announcing plans to invest $1 billion in EVs and its own self-driving technology, which it claims has “already surpassed” electric car pioneer Tesla Inc. in some aspects.
The Shenzhen-based company, better known for its mobile-phone networks and being the subject of crippling U.S. sanctions, has unveiled its first car developed with BAIC BluePark Mew Energy Technology Co. The mid-sized Arcfox S sedan uses HI, or Huawei Inside, an intelligent automotive software package that enables it to run on autonomous driving mode in city areas for more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) without human intervention. Delivery is slated to start in the fourth quarter.
Huawei’s auto show display attracted larger crowds than nearby China Evergrande New Energy Vehicle Group Ltd., an EV upstart that took one of the biggest stands to showcase nine models despite the fact it hasn’t sold a car under its own brand. As well as the Arcfox S sedan, a Seres SF5 coupe equipped with Huawei Inside was on display, along with Huawei’s HiFin Intelligent Antenna Solution, a new generation in-vehicle communication system plus 4D-imaging radar that’s used to monitor roads and traffic.