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Tencent follows Alibaba, Baidu into smart car development

Dancers perform underneath the logo of Tencent at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing on May 6, 2014. Photo: Reuters 

Chinese technology giant Tencent and domestic carmaker Guangzhou Automobile Group have recently signed a strategic cooperation agreement to jointly develop Internet-connected cars, marking the involvement of all the BAT companies, which refer to Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, in the development of autonomous driving cars.

The partnership between Tencent and Guangzhou Auto came just months after the Shenzhen-based technology company bought a 5 percent stake in US electric car-maker Tesla Motors for $1.78 billion, which has been working on autonomous driving technologies.

The strategic pact will allow Tencent and Guangzhou Auto to work together to develop Internet-connected cars and artificial intelligence-based driver assistance technologies as well as make investment in the areas including automobile-related e-commerce, new energy cars and automobile insurance, according to a filing the carmaker submitted to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Guangzhou Auto said that it will use Tencent's knowhow in mobile payments, social networking, big data and artificial intelligence to build its cars as a competitive Internet-connected car brand. Meanwhile, Tencent will seize the opportunity to integrate its Internet-related services with smart cars.

The application of intelligent technologies and electrification of automobiles has created space for comprehensive cooperation between technology companies and traditional automakers, with e-commerce group Alibaba taking the lead by establishing a fund of 1 billion yuan ($160 million) in 2015 in partnership with domestic vehicle manufacturer SAIC Motor to develop Internet-connected cars.

In 2016, Alibaba and SAIC Motor unveiled their first mass produced Internet-connected car, the Roewe RX5 sport utility vehicle, which is powered by Alibaba-designed car operating system YunOS, which massively improves driving experience by connecting the car with cloud services.

Industry experts said that establishing alliances to jointly develop self-driving cars is an inevitable option for technology companies and traditional automakers because the former is adept at software development while the latter is good at hardware production.

Baidu, another competitor of Tencent in the area of autonomous driving cars, has gone further in the race with its Apollo project, which is aimed at providing its ecosystem partners with an open, comprehensive and safe software platform to integrate vehicles with hardware systems to build a complete self-driving system.

The Apollo platform, which was established in April this year, has enlisted more than 50 members ranging from carmakers and automobile parts suppliers to technology firms and research institutions. The operator of the largest search engine in China also offers Internet-connected car software such as CarLife and DuerOS.

However, industry experts warned that such alliances might meet some resistance as traditional car manufacturers appear to be reluctant to completely share cars' data with their Internet and technology peers.

The partnership, which Baidu and German carmaker BMW forged in 2014 to jointly develop self-driving cars, came to an end in 2016 amid speculation that the two partners had divergences on who would take the lead in the collaboration.

BMW is cooperating with American technology giant Intel and Mobileye, a global leader in the development of computer vision and machine learning, data analysis, localization and mapping for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems and autonomous driving, to create a technology alliance, with a mission to align the industry on an open, standards-based platform and bring solutions for highly and fully automated driving into series production by 2021.

Refusing to define the Western-led technology alliance as an ecosystem simply incorporating entities related to autonomous driving, Xu Weijie, market director for China for the Automated Driving Group at Intel, described the group as a platform where all of the participants can enjoy a set of unified standards in the areas from door locks to data center, with each bearing its own specific responsibilities and sharing the technologies needed for autonomous driving through patent license agreement.

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