Drive I/O

Drive I/O is TechNode’s ongoing premium series on the cutting edge of mobility: EVs, AVs, and the companies trying to build them. Available to TechNode subscribers.

Huawei burrowed further into the auto industry with the launch of the first vehicle with its homegrown operating system. The Chinese government cut purchase subsidies on new energy vehicles (NEVs) by 30% this year, while scrapping ownership limits on foreign automakers’ investments in the auto industry. Chinese electric vehicle (EV) makers Nio, Xpeng, and Li Auto celebrated record annual deliveries of nearly 100,000 cars in 2021. Alibaba’s head of autonomous driving lab quit the company after more than four years. Didi, soon to delist, shows a few signs of approaching break-even with its first post-IPO earnings report.

Huawei intensifies auto plans with launch of first vehicle with ‘seamless’ Harmony

News: Huawei on Dec. 23 unveiled the first EV model equipped with its HarmonyOS operating system with manufacturing partner Seres. Huawei boasts that this in-car software system offers users a seamless experience of smartphone and car features across devices. Priced from RMB 250,000 ($39,063), the Aito M5 sports utility vehicle runs on electricity or fuel and has a 1,242-km driving range, which compares with the 1,080 km offered by Li Auto’s popular plug-in hybrid crossover Li One. Huawei said that it will showcase the vehicle in 180 Huawei shops across 42 cities and deliveries should start around Feb. 20.

Insights: As US chip sanctions crippled its smartphone core business, Huawei is trying to diversify its operations by breaking into the Chinese automobile sector. The Chinese telecommunications giant last April started selling Seres vehicles through its sales network, but they did not sell well. From April through November, Seres achieved sales of only 7,080 SF5 EVs, which were equipped with Huawei powertrain system and in-car software, according to figures published by China Passenger Car Association. Huawei has also partnered with state-owned automakers BAIC and Changan to equip vehicles with its autonomous driving hardware and software. Yet some industry insiders are doubtful that the tech giant will eventually make its own cars.

News link: TechNode 

Beijing sticks to plan to end EV subsidies in 2023

News: Chinese authorities on Dec. 31 unveiled long-awaited details about its national subsidy program for new energy vehicles (NEVs), such as all-electrics and plug-in hybrids. For 2022, beginning Jan. 1, subsidies to EV buyers will be cut 30% compared to 2021. According to a document released by the Ministry of Finance, the grants for EVs delivering driving ranges of at least 400 km (248 miles) will be cut by RMB 5,400 on an annual basis to RMB 18,000 ($2,824). Meanwhile, the subsidies this year for all-electrics with a driving range of 300 km to 400 km will be lowered to RMB 13,000, while those for plug-in hybrids will be cut to RMB 6,800. Beijing also reaffirmed its plan to eliminate subsidies entirely at the end of this year. Subsidies for purchases of new energy vehicles (NEVs) were already trimmed by 10% and 20% during 2020 and 2021, respectively. 

Context: In reaction, several overseas automakers have raised prices for their EVs in China to offset the subsidy cuts. The prices of Tesla’s popular China-made Model 3 and Volkswagen’s ID series EVs have risen by RMB 10,000 and RMB 5,400, respectively. Newer local EV makers are taking a more active approach to reduce the impact of the subsidy cut. Nio on Jan. 1 announced moves to make up the difference between sticker prices and reduced subsidies of its vehicles for customers who had paid a deposit before the end of 2021 and who will get their vehicles delivered by Mar. 31. Cui Dongshu, secretary general of China Passenger Car Association (CPCA), forecasts that the trimmed government incentive program could still give a great boost to the EV adoption in the country, noting that the manufacturing cost of EVs and batteries are falling significantly. Cui estimated China’s NEV sales could more than double to around 6 million vehicles in 2022 from the previous year and therefore maintain leadership in the world EV race.

News link: Reuters 

China lifts restrictions on foreign auto ownership

News: China now allows overseas automakers to operate wholly-owned ventures in the country’s passenger vehicle sector. As of Jan. 1, 2022, foreign firms are no longer limited to 50% ownership in their joint venture auto operations. The law had been in effect since 1994. In addition, foreign automakers can now set up more than two joint ventures that make the same type of vehicles.  The new ownership rules were detailed in a Dec. 27 release from the Ministry of Commerce and the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planner.

Insights: The move has been perceived as a positive signal that would create a level playing field for domestic and foreign carmakers, Cui Dongshu, secretary-general of the China Passenger Car Association, told state broadcaster CGTN. Nonetheless, Cui said there would be no significant impact on the market from removing the limits since they were expected. German auto major BMW is expected to become the first internal-combustion vehicle maker to take advantage of the new JV rules. It plans to up its stake to 75% from 25% in its JV with Chinese partner Brilliance Automotive by the end of 2022. The Chinese government since 2018 has gradually ramped up efforts to fully liberalize the domestic auto industry, starting by scrapping limits on foreign ownership of EV makers as it aims to be a global leader in the sector. Tesla became the first foreign auto brand to enjoy the relaxed EV regulations when it set up its wholly-owned venture in Shanghai in May  2018.  

News link: Global Times 

China’s EV trio post record deliveries numbers in 2021

News: The US-listed Chinese EV trio of Li Auto, Nio, and Xpeng launched the new year by publishing record delivery numbers for 2021. Each noted that they had delivered nearly 100,000 vehicles in 2021, despite global chip shortages. All had doubled their deliveries from 2020. Xpeng Motors had stood out among its peers, delivering a record 98,155 vehicles last year, up 263% from its 2020 delivery count. It surpassed Nio, whose annual deliveries totaled 91,429 electric crossovers. Nio was hit by supply chain issues and changes to its manufacturing lines during the second half of last year. Meanwhile, Li Auto saw 2021 deliveries surge 178% year on year to 90,491 vehicles.

Context: Chinese automakers have been riding the wave of growing popularity of EVs in the country, boosted by a years-long national subsidy program and special license plates to EV buyers, among other policy measures. Nio, Xpeng, and Li Auto, all once struggling to stay afloat and beset by lackluster sales, are the poster children of the revolution. The trio has laid out ambitious plans to expand their sales and service networks as they vie to grab market share from internal-combustion vehicle segments. Analysts surveyed by Seeking Alpha expected Nio’s annual revenue to increase by 74% this year, Forbes reported, while Citigroup forecast that Xpeng’s deliveries could almost double to 175,000 units in 2022.

News link: South China Morning Post 

Alibaba’s head of autonomous driving quits

News: Alibaba has parted ways with Wang Gang, a renowned computer scientist who has served as head of the tech giant’s autonomous driving lab under its Damo Academy research division for three years, Chinese media reported on Jan. 5, citing people familiar with the matter. A former tenured professor at Nanyang Technological University, Wang joined Alibaba in early 2017 as the chief scientist for the company’s artificial intelligence lab and was tasked with improving speech recognition capabilities for its first smart speaker device, the AliGenie X1, launched later that year. Wang has begun working on a startup developing robot vacuum cleaners and has raised an unknown amount of funds, the sources added.

Insights: The move is noteworthy in many ways. For one, Chinese industry giants had hoovered up research talents and poured resources into exploring the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) over recent years. The rush is over given a slower-than-expected process of implementing AI in industries, as many top scientists give up the high salaries in the industry for academia, while others start up their own businesses. Wang’s departure comes after Li Lei, the director of ByteDance’s AI Lab, left the company to join the University of California Santa Barbara as a professor last August, following the resignation of ByteDance Vice President Ma Wei-Ying a year earlier, SCMP reported. Chinese tech powerhouses also struggle with executive turnover and layoffs, as Beijing’s regulatory clampdowns continue to weigh on the sector.

News link: TechNode 

Didi’s first earnings report after IPO: $4.7 billion loss

News: On Dec. 30, Didi reported its first earnings as a public company. It wasn’t pretty: The company lost RMB 30.4 billion ($4.7 billion) on RMB 42.7 billion ($6.6 billion) in revenue during the September quarter of 2021. To compare, the company reported a profit of RMB 665 million on revenue of RMB 43.4 billion in the same quarter of 2020. Didi’s largest source of revenue is still its domestic ride-hailing business, which yielded RMB 39 billion, down 12.9% from the previous quarter. The company posted an 8% quarter-over-quarter decline to 2.36 billion in ride volume over the period.

Context: Still the largest ride-hailing service in China by ride volume and revenue, Didi has been at the forefront in Beijing’s wide crackdown on local tech companies. Did’s business has taken a hit from a suspension order that has kept its services off Chinese app stores since July. Having been listed in the US for less than six months, the Chinese mobility giant on Dec. 3 announced plans to take its shares off the New York stock market and instead pursue a listing in Hong Kong. Beijing has yet to announce the results of its cybersecurity investigation into Didi, and the company’s shares have fallen more than 60% from its IPO price.

News link: TechNode 

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen