Note: This article was first published on TechNode China (in Chinese).
Ever since Huawei announced its push into the Chinese electric vehicle (EV) space last year, the industry has been watching the telecom giant’s moves.
Huawei had some modest successes in the past year, first partnering with BAIC and Changan on their self-driving technologies. It also provided the powertrain system to a little-known Chinese automaker Seres, and its SF5 model debuted last April.
Now it looks like the tech giant has pinned its hopes on a new car model released in partnership with Seres. Last December, the two companies released Aito M5, the first EV model equipped with HarmonyOS, Huawei’s alternative to Google’s Android operating system. (Huawei developed Harmony after Washington banned Google from working with Huawei in 2019.)
On Feb. 18, TechNode China had a chance to test drive the Aito M5 in the southwestern city of Chongqing, home of the Seres’ factory. So how did Huawei do in EV tech? Here are our takeaways.
Seamless connectivity for existing Huawei users
Aito M5 is the first luxury EV model manufactured by Seres. The hybrid sports utility vehicle claims to reach 1,242 km (772 miles) on a single charge and tank, with a price range from RMB 249,800 to RMB 319,800 ($39,518 to $50,592). By comparison, Chinese EV maker Li Auto’s plug-in hybrid crossover Li One, the best-selling medium-to-large size SUV in China last year, features a maximum range of 1,080 km and is priced from RMB 338,000.
The in-car version of the HarmonyOS shares a similar design language with Huawei’s smartphones along with some of the most frequently-used features. For example, we could activate most of the car’s functions by voice control. The car dashboard also has a shortcut bar for fast access to the most used features.
Aito M5 came with many apps, including a navigation map app, streaming services such as Tencent-backed Ximalaya FM, and Alibaba’s Youku. You can use Youku to watch videos or relax with music or audiobooks while driving when stuck in traffic. An alert system will also notify users of significant changes in road traffic.
Huawei’s ability to integrate its ecosystem with the car differentiates Huawei from other EV players. Huawei devices, smartphones, tablets, smartwatches can seamlessly work with the vehicle. Phone calls and messages could be synced on Huawei’s devices, including the car’s dashboard. That will probably become one of the biggest competitive advantages for rival EV players.
Fast and accurate voice assistant
Huawei also brought a powerful in-car voice assistant called Xiaoyi to the car. The assistant is powered by Huawei’s in-house cloud infrastructure. During the test drive, the assistant provided accurate responses promptly. It recognized voice commands from riders in the front passenger seat and from the rear seats, opening windows and unlocking the doors for the respective speaker, for example. Huawei said Xiaoyi can control all the features in the vehicle.
Riders can even issue multiple commands to Xiaoyi without repeating the wake word (“Xiaoyixiaoyi” in Chinese). The assistant will continue to listen for another request after it completed the previous ones.
Huawei’s virtual assistant also serves as a voice guide. For example, Xiaoyi suggested turning on the in-car air purifying function when the car drove into a tunnel and encountered bad air quality. It also searched for a charging station and navigation when the vehicle battery ran low.
Speaking to a virtual voice assistant for those control functions within the car is well-developed in the industry. Major rivals such as Nio and Xpeng have similar offerings. Nio owners could start a conversation with a voice assistant using the three-syllable phrase “Hi, Nomi,” while Huawei’s wake word “Xiaoyixiaoyi” has four syllables. Alibaba-backed Xpeng in late 2020 said each of vehicle owners used its voice assistants effectively 25 times per day on average, compared with 13 times from part of Ford models, Chinese financial media Caixin reported.
Integrating home and auto
The Aito M5 helps Huawei build a connection between an EV and its wide range of digital and smart home devices. That connection is taking shape as Huawei and its auto partner have introduced dashboard-based smart home management tools for users to integrate their homes into the vehicle.
Being able to sync all their Huawei devices means users can read and send text messages directly by voice command in the car, then continue listening to music and podcasts at home exactly where they left off from the in-car system. However, the integration may not work as seamlessly for non-Huawei users.
Challenging road ahead
The Aito M5 showcases in-car technologies that Huawei offers: a dashboard that performs many of the same functions as Huawei smartphones and a network that allows remote connectivity to a plethora of its home appliances.
And yet, the Chinese telecom giant and its obscure manufacturing partner will need to build a reputation for building quality cars. The Aito M5 is entering a Chinese EV market crowded with established players, competing heads on with similarly-priced rivals, such as Tesla’s Model Y and Li Auto’s popular crossover Li One.