Chinese carmaker Guangzhou Automobile Group (GAC) is strengthening its alliance with ride-hailing platform Didi, investing up to $75 million into the latter’s autonomous driving unit. The move is expected to help GAC enhance its self-driving technological capabilities and sustain its sound growth momentum in the Chinese electric vehicle segment, according to an industry veteran.
The deal, nearly clinched over three years ago, has recently been revived by the two companies as the impact from Beijing’s extended crackdown on Didi has waned, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told TechNode on Friday. It also comes against the backdrop of Didi’s renewed efforts to solidify its position as China’s biggest ride-hailing service with new incentives, putting smaller rivals under pressure.
Self-driving push: Autonomous driving has proven to be among the most capital-intensive startup businesses on the current tech landscape, and the extended collaboration with Didi would allow GAC to share its costs and risks of making robocars, said Liu Guanghao, partner at Shanghai-based venture capital firm Befor Capital.
- The first robotaxi jointly developed by GAC and Didi is slated to join Didi’s ride-hailing network for commercial operation in 2025, the companies said earlier this year. GAC’s EV arm, Aion, announced a partnership with Didi back in May 2021 to develop a mass-produced car with Level 4 autonomous capabilities, indicating that the car can pilot itself without a human driver most of the time.
- Didi will also jointly test and operate autonomous vehicles for ride-hailing with OnTime, a mobility platform launched by GAC with partners in 2019, as disclosed by an anonymous source. OnTime, primarily active in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong where its parent company is headquartered, has been testing AVs with Toyota-backed Pony.ai, as well as Nissan-supported WeRide.
EV sales boost: The investment would also help GAC’s core carmaking business achieve sustained growth, especially in the Chinese commercial fleet segment, where its EV brand Aion has established a significant presence over the years, according to Liu. “Carmakers need more sales in order to survive in this highly competitive market,” he said.
- Aion ranked second in sales among all-electric vehicles for ride-hailing, with approximately 49,000 units sold from January to October 2022, which accounted for 29% of its total sales, according to figures compiled by Shanghai-based consultancy LandRoads (in Chinese). BYD was the top-selling brand in the field, with sales of 35,000 more units during the same period, although this accounted for only 14% of its total volume.
- GAC told investors last March that shipments of its Aion EVs for ride-hailing services only accounted for 12% of its total sales. The automaker, also a manufacturing partner for Toyota and Honda in China, reported sales of nearly 360,000 Aion EVs from January to September and is hoping to achieve 500,000 units for this year, which could almost double the number it sold in 2022.
Context: GAC Capital, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the automaker, as well as state-owned Guangzhou Development District Investment Group, will invest the same amount of up to $149 million totally in Didi’s self-driving unit. GAC is set to inject no more than $75 million in the funding round, according to a Friday announcement (in Chinese).
- OnTime is currently pursuing a public listing on the Hong Kong stock exchange, four years after it was launched by GAC along with a group of investors including Didi and Chinese gaming giant Tencent in mid-2019. It completed roughly 60 million rides last year and has operated in 21 domestic cities in the country’s Greater Bay area as of June.
- GAC declined to comment when contacted by TechNode on Friday. Didi did not respond to TechNode’s request for comment.