Editor’s note: This piece was contributed by David Green, a Taipei-based writer and journalist covering the future of work in Asia.

Imagine being transported through a gleaming city of the future in a driverless car. All that space outside, all those windows through which to watch your world pass by. Who would want to spend the journey head buried in a smartphone, like the ditouzu (低头族) on the subway? No one, at least that’s the bet Alibaba seems to be making by leading the recent $18-million investment in WayRay, the Russian-Swiss developer of holographic AR tech for connected cars.

The series B investment amounts to more than just financing as it comprises a strategic partnership with Banma Technologies, an independent startup backed by Alibaba and leading state-owned automaker SAIC Motor, that is dedicated to developing tech for connected cars. Alibaba and SAIC have already made their first foray into the segment with the RX5, a connected sports vehicle the pair released last year based on Alibaba’s YunOS. Partnerships like this are springing out of the paintwork all over the map. Volkswagen, for example, recently said it will invest $180 million in Beijing-based Mobvoi to establish a joint venture focused on developing voice recognition and language tech for its next generation of artificial intelligence-enabled vehicles.

The direction of thinking is clear: cars are fast on their way to becoming mobile computers, and the race is on to make them as connected, informative and entertaining as possible. I spoke with WayRay CEO Vitaly Ponomarev about Navion, WayRay’s AR navigation system, his plans for the China market, and how he sees the driver, and passenger, experience evolving in future.

We’ve seen a number of heads-up displays (HUDs) projecting information onto the windshield before: Navdy, Hudway, and iHUD to name just a few. What’s so special about Navion?

 We’re the only company innovating in the field of real holography. We use real diffraction and are the only company in the world that can design and produce large-size holographic optical elements (HOEs) – thin transparent films with diffraction nanopatterns recorded inside. We’re able to create AR content around the car, on the road, and for the wider environment. When you’re looking through a camera or a tablet, AR is easy because you’re just overlaying one area on reality, but in our case, we have to take depth into account – different distances to virtual objects – so the interface is totally different.

How does the navigation work in terms of mapping in China?

 We’re using OpenStreetMaps at a core level – an open source platform that works everywhere – but for specific countries, we’re using local partners. In China’s case that could be [Alibaba-owned] AutoNavi. We’re also looking at local providers of point-of-interest (POI) info and integrating it into our system. This is what we are negotiating right now for both OEM and the aftermarket.

Zion Market Research said last month that the China market for HUDs is expected to grow at CAGR of 66.7% between 2015 and 2020 to $2.87 billion in 2020. Presumably, you have that market in your sights?

 Yes, we want to replace traditional HUDs because our units are smaller, cheaper and more advanced, and we’re also creating a market for AR navigation. But crucially, we’re aiming for the market for infotainment in self-driving cars. We believe in future people will consume a lot of info from AR and the virtual world around the cars. We want to become not only a provider of hardware but a medium for third parties to develop new AR applications on our platform. These could include POIs, adverts, social networks, and games. We’re already working with a number of car manufacturers who are interested in these displays. One European manufacturer wants to release their self-driving car with our tech in 2022. In China, it will be even earlier because the manufacturers are faster than the Europeans and Japanese.

You’ve obviously had the China market in your sights for a while, as indicated by the longstanding Chinese language option on your website. Why the focus on China and how big do you estimate the market to be for your product?

 Obviously, the size of the market [is a major draw] – it’s the biggest and fastest growing in the world [up 13.7% at 28 million units in 2016]. If we look at SAIC, it has 14 models, and due to cost, we can equip up to 30% of these cars, or a million each year. So depending on the number of OEMs we partner with, and we are working with all the major ones in China, it could be up to 15 million cars a year from 2019 equipped with our tech. The HUD market is already big. But the AR and the self-driving markets are new and we believe it is a hundreds of billions of dollars market globally – calculated not only on cash hardware sales but also from services possible with the platform.

The other thing about China is the amount of people who are ready to early adopt new tech. Chinese car manufacturers are less conservative than global counterparts. For example, German car manufacturers design in seven years, and Chinese do this in two years. We decided to go to China first because it’s an opportunity to demonstrate the tech in action in the mass market very fast.

Alibaba already has its own connected car tech and YunOS platform. Is the plan to replace this or build on top of it, and how does the strategic partnership work? 

 Actually, the idea is to build it on top of Yun and to increase the number of services and features based on YunOS. Banma is trying to build a big infotainment platform for OEMs, not only SAIC but for other Chinese car manufacturers. This presents a great opportunity for big synergy to penetrate other OEMs. Also for the aftermarket, Alibaba is the best partner to sell the product online in China.

Do you have any IP or regulatory concerns?

We split production between mass manufacturing of electronics, optics, and mechanics in Shenzhen and the innovative holographic films in Switzerland. It’s easy to protect out IP because the mother company is still in Switzerland and we are not planning to grant exclusivity to any manufacturers here. The tech is also hard to copy. We believe we won’t have any competitors for three years.

As for regulation, we say our tech is much safer than conventional HUDs because we’re not projecting information on the surface of the windshield. We are projecting at the same depth as the real objects so people are not refocusing their eyes. We researched all markets and we found no restrictions in China.

Navigant Research recently released a driverless car development “leaderboard” that puts Baidu as the only Chinese player on the map, behind all its global rivals. Do you have any sense that China will be later to market with driverless navigation?

 It’s a question of one year – the difference in the level of tech between Chinese OEMs and hi-tech Western or Japanese companies. It’s important to see the support of the government for self-driving cars as you can’t just do this without regulation and laws, and I think the Chinese government will be even more flexible on this than some Western countries. Actually, these OEMs are all using the same electronics tech developed by Intel, NVIDIA, Bosch, Continental, and MobilEye. It’s the same tech but maybe different software, so I’d say there won’t be much difference in terms of the speed of introduction of driverless cars into our cities.

All the biggest OEMs believe Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) will be the next thing because they’re almost all the same in terms of speed and efficiency, so they’re focused now on the infotainment in the car and the quality of connected car services and other features that will be available in self-driving cars. It’s a transformative period towards driverless cars and people need to trust machines. Our tech allows the visualization of what the car is doing and how it can see the situation and why it behaves the way it does – that’s very important for people in self-driving cars for them to feel safe.

TechNode Guest Editors represent the best our community has to offer: insight and perspective on how technology is affecting business and culture in China

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