Alibaba—China’s biggest tech company—says it’s entering a joint venture with SAIC Motor, China’s largest auto company, to build a connected car. The car, which could hit the roads as early as next year, would communicate with other cars via the cloud.
The news comes just days after Baidu—China’s biggest search company—said it would build a self-driving car, and just weeks after a Chinese government official suggested that tech companies should foster innovation in the auto industry. Maybe it was more than just a suggestion.
In any case, the news represents the confluence of two trends: the tech invasion of automaking and the attempt of governments to be seen leading the charge.
The techie invasion began in 2010, when Google unveiled its famous Google car project. Now Apple may be in the hunt, according to Valley gossip fueled by citings of sensor-festooned Apple cars and reports that the company is poaching engineering talent from Tesla Motors and battery-maker A123. Wags have already speculated how the experience of driving a future Apple car might turn out.
Government positioning also began its stately minuet some years ago in the United States, when states like California, Nevada and Michigan began competing with one another to be the first to welcome robocars to the roads. Joining them in recent months Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands have all announced robocar strategies, sometimes using language that betrayed a certain fear of being left in Google’s dust. One wonders how they will react to Alibaba and Baidu.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.