During last year’s Tencent Global Partner Conference 2017, the Chinese tech giant announced its intentions to enter the self-driving car market. The autonomous driving lab direct leader, Su Kui Feng explained their goals. They would first focus on providing driving assistance and later offer complete self-driving cars. A white car spotted on Beijing’s 4th ring is suspected to be Tencent’s first prototype. The car was equipped with laser radars and sensors similar to those used by other companies. A driver was at the wheel, so the automatic driving mode was probably not active. Although the car did not show any obvious connection to Tencent, its license plate was registered by Tencent Technology (Hubei Province Branch). Four months ago, local authorities in Beijing released the first guideline on road tests for autonomous vehicles (the cars must possess both an automatic driving system and a conventional one).
Tencent might be the last player to join the self-driving car race, but it would be a mistake to underestimate them. They have invested heavily in many companies in this field. One year ago, Tencent bought 5 percent stake in Tesla for USD 1.78 billion. In China, they invested USD 500 million in the Shanghai-based electric car start-up, Weltmeister, which plans to start selling cars in the second half of 2018. Another Chinese electric car manufacturer, Nio, raised more than USD 500 million from Tencent at the end of 2017. Tesla’s plans to build a factory in China have been slowed down and their cars are charged 25 percent import duty, hence there is a gap in the market that many players want to take advantage of. Tencent has also invested in the German mapping company HERE, which provides high precision maps, a key aspect of self-driving cars. The competition is fierce in a market that could be worth USD 45 billion by 2025.
Since last year, Tencent’s development in this area has been secretive. According to the description of their available job positions last March, the company had completed the self-driving car’s navigation system. An ex-employee revealed that Tencent’s self-driving car laboratory employed around 50 people and they want to at least double that number by the end of this year. Tencent also analyzed the problems that Baidu’s self-driving car laboratory faced in the past. As it is determined not to duplicate its rival’s mistakes, they will ensure not to hire more people than necessary. Although the company is planning an expansion in this field, they are focused more on stability than speed in order to avoid problems caused by rapid development.
Not only that, the company lead by Ma Huateng wants to follow a different path than Baidu for commercializing the product. The company based in Beijing hopes to sell their own transportation system’s (named Apollo) hardware and material. They prefer to focus on the navigation system and the technology behind it and source hardware, cars and sensors from other companies. In September 2017, Tencent signed a strategic alliance with the car manufacturer, Guangzhou Automobile Group to develop smart cars. GAC presented their iSPACE electric car, a prototype equipped with an artificial intelligence system developed by Tencent. The Penguin Company (as Tencent is also known in China thanks to its QQ mascot) will be able to focus on the needs of the idle driver. Through the integration of the Internet and the self-navigation system, Tencent will offer their services and products to passengers on board.
The death of a woman in Arizona after she was hit by a self-driving car operated by Uber shocked the whole industry. Currently, one of the main concerns is the safety of using this new technology and Tencent has rightly made it one of their main goals. They have added more sensors to the car, that will be integrated with a safer navigation system.