Jack Ma plays coy about self-driving plans

Jack Ma plays coy about self-driving plans

Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma (second right) at Thursday's press conference in Bangkok.
Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma (second right) at Thursday's press conference in Bangkok.

Alibaba supremo Jack Ma has disclosed that the company is starting work on autonomous technology, but he did not mention when or how the company plans to roll it out in Southeast Asia.

"We are doing a lot of research on driverless vehicles, but we are not competing with Tencent or Baidu, or even Google," Mr Ma said at a press conference Thursday in Bangkok.

According to a report by the South China Morning Post, the company is looking to hire 50 more self-driving specialists for its artificial intelligence research lab.

"It is generally understood that Alibaba is now running road tests of autonomous cars on a regular basis, and has the capabilities for open road trails," the newspaper said.

Just 30% of Alibaba's employees are focused on e-commerce, with the rest focused "on the future", Mr Ma said.

Jumping into autonomous cars would be a natural progression for Alibaba, which already provides software for its own Xpeng Motors, as well as a number of traditional car markets.

Renault, for example, recently announced that it would start using Alibaba software in its vehicles. Ford and BMW made similar announcements in 2017.

Alibaba would be entering a heated race for a piece of the autonomous software car market, which analysts say could be worth close to US$42 billion.

Security concerns underlined by Tesla's two recent fatalities have done little to check the development of autonomous vehicles. In the West, tech companies like Uber and Alphabet unit Waymo, plus traditional carmakers like Ford, are accelerating efforts to take a piece of the pie.

In California alone, somewhere between 30 and 50 companies have licences to operate driverless vehicles, said Kartik Hosanagar, a professor of operations at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

On this side of the Pacific, Baidu, Tencent and a host of other startups have taken a stake in what Mr Ma describes as "a competition for the future". Unlike many of their US counterparts, Chinese players have been partnering with traditional automakers in order to speed their entry to market and focus on the highly profitable car software business.

Baidu, for example, partnered with over 90 companies, including Ford, Continental and Microsoft, in order to implement its self-driving software Apollo. Last week, the company received a permit from the Chinese government to test its vehicles in urban environments. Earlier, Baidu announced that it would have fully autonomous vehicles on the streets by 2019.

In January, Baidu's chief executive said the company's HD maps business would be "much bigger" than its search engine segment.

For its part, Tencent acquired 5% of Tesla last month and is now the fourth-largest shareholder, according to Bloomberg. It also has a big stake in ride-sharing platform Didi Chuxing, which demonstrated an autonomous vehicle in February, as well as in NavInfo, a major provider of autonomous vehicle software.

Technology companies stand to gain from the autonomous car revolution. Software will become increasingly important as cars rely on maps and sensors to make sense of their surroundings, and as consumers spend less car time driving and more time working or plugged into the internet.

Moving forward, cars may be seen as life companions more than a mere mode of transport, Mr Ma said. "I believe our children will only work four hours a day and four days a week or maybe three days a week," he said. "The rest of the time they may be in their cars, travelling."

SOUTHEAST ASIAN MARKET

Mr Ma did not provide additional details of the company's autonomous vehicle strategy at home or Southeast Asia, but he remarked that the company must succeed in Asia before venturing into the American market. "Very few Asian companies have been successful in America," he added.

But autonomous vehicle adoption faces higher barriers in this region than it does in developed markets or even in China.

Adapting algorithms to work with Thailand's substandard infrastructure, less-than-developed traffic signs and aggressive driver behaviour could pose a challenge for companies used to working in well-marked California streets.

French market research firm Ipsos Consulting estimates that Level 4 autonomous vehicles will take at least 10 years to develop in India, a market with infrastructure challenges similar to Thailand's.

Cost is another key barrier in developing markets. At present, autonomous features remain tied to high-end models.

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