Global automakers are positioning for a brave new world of on-demand transport that would require a car of the future — hyper-connected, autonomous and shared — and China might become the concept’s laboratory.
With ride-hailing services booming and car-sharing not far behind, the need for vehicles tailored to these and other evolving mobility solutions is one of the hottest topics among global automakers gathered for this week’s Auto Shanghai.
Nearly all agree that there is no better proving ground than China: Its gigantic cities are desperate for answers to gridlock and its population is noted for its ready embrace of high-tech new services.
To take advantage of this, manufacturers are competing not only to sell conventional and electric vehicles in the world’s biggest auto market, but also to develop new technologies and even specific interiors designed for the on-demand world.
“We cannot just develop electric cars. They will have to be smart, interconnected and of course shared,” Zhao Guoqing (趙國慶), vice president of Chinese auto giant Great Wall Motor Co (長城汽車), said on the show’s sidelines.
Discussion of China and ride-hailing inevitably involves Didi Chuxing (滴滴出行), the country’s omnipresent answer to Uber Technologies Inc.
The eagerness of Chinese travelers to hail rides with a smartphone tap has unleashed a colossal market: On-demand transport reached US$28 billion in turnover in China last year, or about half of global volume, and is expected to double by 2022, according to data firm Statista GmbH.
Didi accounts for about 90 percent of the Chinese market.
The on-demand potential is bringing automakers and service providers together.
Last year, Didi unveiled an alliance of Chinese and foreign manufacturers including Renault SA, Toyota Motor Corp and Volkswagen AG, dedicated to exploring ways forward. And in February, Chinese technology giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (阿里巴巴) and Tencent Holdings Ltd (騰訊) joined hands with several manufacturers to develop a future platform for on-demand transport.
“We can no longer be a conventional manufacturer, we must offer mobility solutions, connectivity,” Volkswagen Group China (大眾汽車中國) director Stephan Wollenstein told reporters.
Although a relative newcomer to China’s automotive market, French brand Renault is plunging ahead: Its local joint venture with Chinese manufacturer Brilliance China Automotive Holdings Ltd (華晨中國汽車控股) in February delivered 600 personal minivans to Didi.
“Didi wants to develop such vehicles with many carmakers, which are more adapted to [Didi’s] business, redesigned around the passenger,” Renault-Brilliance-Jinbei Automotive Co (華晨雷諾金杯汽車) vice president Michael Dong (董晨睿) said.
For one thing, most passenger vehicles today are designed to squeeze in a family, and thus feature limited space in the back, because that is where the kids normally sit, AlixPartners LLP analyst Lawrence Petizon said.
However, for ride-hailing or car-sharing, more space is needed in the back to accommodate grown-up passengers.
“The family car is not the right answer,” he said.
Didi drivers typically supply their own vehicles, but Chinese authorities are encouraging service firms to build their own fleets, partly to spur the industry and push forward the futuristic transport concept.
Some manufacturers are even dipping their toes into ride-hailing, with Germany’s BMW AG offering a high-end service in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, and Volkswagen and Daimler AG doing so in Shanghai.
“Admittedly, the volumes ordered are still insufficient for mass production, but the potential is enormous,” Dong said.
The idea is not confined to China.
Daimler and BMW in February announced that they would jointly invest “more than 1 billion euros [US$1.12 billion]” to deepen cooperation between their Car2Go and DriveNow services in Europe, in which cars are available for short-term point-to-point use.
One thing that seems to certain to eventually change is how cars are bought and sold.
“Car manufacturers will no longer provide customers with cars via a one-time sale, but rather with a brand that connects them to the users on a daily basis through the mobility services they offer,” Eurogroup Consulting said in a report.
This automotive evolution is expected to accelerate development of autonomous vehicles, which are already viewed as the future of overall car transport, but seem especially suited for urban car-sharing services.
Valeo SA, the French manufacturer of ultrasonic sensors, cameras and navigational technology, said that it last year received orders totaling 1 billion euros related to the development of “robot-taxis.”
Francois Marion, president of Valeo China (法雷奧中國), said the global advent of driverless cars is just around the bend.
“They will hit the road in carefully charted urban environments, with dedicated lanes on the streets, connected infrastructures guiding them, and programmed itineraries,” he said of the futuristic vision.
“The companies operating them will always be able to intervene if anything happens to one of the vehicles,” he added.
Valeo is also working with Meituan Dianping (美團點評), China’s leader in meal deliveries, to develop a robotic vehicle.
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