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The demand for smart urban mobility is growing, and so is the competition to lead the zero-emission market. In China, the government’s early policies to accelerate the uptake of the new energy vehicles helped to foster a strong line-up of EV players backed by powerful investors. State subsidies have started to, well, subside, and that has already hit the bottom line of some early beneficiaries. But favourable investment policies and the government’s ambition to lead the field of artificial intelligence technology might just give Chinese companies enough edge to dominate the global EV market.

These companies are turning cars into electric smart devices on wheels fuelling the next wave of mobility revolution.

BYTON

The technology-driven startup BYTON considered by market experts as a promising Tesla contender provided that its ‘smart intuitive vehicle’ will launch in 2019 in China as planned. The US and Europe launch is scheduled in 2020. “Nowhere else is the path from concept to completion so short”, promise the founders. “We are not just a company, we are an enabler.”

BYTON got its name from the phrase “Bytes on Wheels” which ‘bytes’ representing the internet and ‘wheels’ – automobiles. The name reflects the positioning of the startup’s products as next-generation smart devices.

Priced at $45,000, its electric SUV M-Byte promises new design aesthetics with masculine proportions driven by innovation. The company aims to replace the horsepower with a digital power which is reflected in proprietary ‘Smart Surfaces’ with interactive functions, facial recognition cameras, voice recognition, touch and gesture control and smartphone integration.

Founded by two former BMW executives, Dr. Carsten Breitfeld and Dr. Daniel Kirchert, the company deploys the same optimistic messaging as is almost customary for mobility startups. “Passion is the only fuel that really moves.” “We are going to turn miles into Smiles. Our return on investment will be the return of emotions.” Let’s hope the emotions will be as positive as the messaging.

BYD

BYD Remote-control Driving Technology. Credit: BYD

BYD, a more established of the new wave of companies, stands for Build Your Dreams. Founded in 1995 as a battery manufacturer, it is now Asia’s biggest EV company with a reported market capitalisation of $17.9 billion. The company boasts Warren Buffett as an investor. “BYD is reshaping the way of transportation”, said Wang Chuanfu, President and Chairman of BYD. While the company is currently perceived as a manufacturer of lower-end vehicles, nothing stops it from producing a premium range in a few years as confirmed by Stella Li, BYD’s Senior Vice-President: “We’re going to design a lot of sexy, nice, cool-looking cars.”

It’s not just a pretty look – BYD invested heavily in building the technology R&D platform gradually accumulating experience on developing various products and relevant data to foster innovation under the hood. Some of the sexy tech the company is working on is the remote-control driving and turning the vehicle into a movable intelligent charging station that could power the grid.

The company muses on how the game-changer comes about: “Maybe it derives from the initial unconstrained ideas, or, perhaps, the insistent pursuit of technology?” Regardless, BYD’s ambition is to “subvert the traditional definition of a CAR”.

NIO

An automotive startup NIO, which means ‘Blue Sky Coming’ in Chinese, aims to free people from driving. Founded in 2014 by the entrepreneur William Li, the company began delivering its flagship electric 7-seater SUV NIO ES8 exclusive to the China market in June 2018. NIO ES8, aimed at middle-class consumers, is all about connectivity and performance. It boasts a ‘world’s first in-car artificial intelligence system’ NOMI and an autonomous driving assistant.

NIO ES8 Panoramic Cockpit. Credit: NIO

But it is the business model that can give the company an edge. Not unlike WeChat, which started as another messaging app but quickly grew into a billion monthly users network where users can make appointments, pay the bills, book taxis and get almost any need served within the app, NIO plans to create its own network. It’s worth noting that WeChat’s parent company – the tech giant Tencent – invested over $1 billion dollars in NIO, according to Bloomberg.

“The expectations of Chinese consumers are very high because the market is very competitive and offers plenty of choices. They expect even more from electric cars than they do from the fossil fuel cars”, says Alexandre Nunes, an Associate Director – Vehicle Attributes at NIO told Auto Futures.

By creating an ecosystem with an array of products and services at a touch of a button or a voice command, the company aims to become a “mobile living space on wheels” which will provide the lifestyle experience beyond the car through its premium service.

NIO ES8 Mobile Living Space. Credit: NIO

It includes NIO Houses which provide a membership club-like experience to its users with spaces to socialise, relax, learn and do business. The mobile app, account system and NOMI not only offer additional services but also capture valuable data about customers. The power service offers a battery swap in just 3 minutes.

Locking customers in NIO’s connected environment means that it will be increasingly inconvenient for customers to switch to another brand. Or even better – they won’t want to leave.

XPeng Motors Technology

A $4 billion startup XPeng Motors Technology and its powerful investors are also betting on a smart device on wheels to become a data-collecting moneymaker. The company envisions to become “a global intelligent travel solution provider and manufacturer” through an integration of hardware, software, data and operations. XPeng Motors plans to build several models of premium cars with autonomous driving and Internet accessibility in the next 5 years. Data-driven, AI-powered “networked car” is at the heart of the ambition to become the future leader of the smart mobility market.

Big data analytics powered by machine learning will help the car to understand the needs and habits of the user providing a continuously personalised experience. The G3 model boasts an HD camera on the roof for 360° rotation. Users will be able to take pictures of videos on the go through the in-car touch screen or a mobile app and instantly share them through inbuilt WiFi or 4G.

XPeng G3 interior. Credit: XPeng Motors

To date, XPeng built 500 cars that the employees of the company have used for a year in order to test, feedback and fine-tune before the real customers could get a taste of the Xpeng’s mobility experience through its first model – XPeng G3.

New startups and venerable automotive giants are rushing to start delivering zero-emission cars to customers. Whether the latecomers would play a catch-up game or benefit from the growing demand and regulatory and infrastructural advancements by the time the early birds burned through cash, remains to be seen.

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