China is BMW’s largest market, and the German automaker knows in order to capture the country’s demanding consumers, its future models must support robust autonomous driving capability.
But to build it itself in China is hardly possible. The success of autonomous driving relies in part on high-definition mapping, a process that requires an expansive collection of geographic information. By law, foreign entities can’t host China-based data without local partnerships. Apple noticeably works with a Chinese firm to store user emails, text messages and other forms of digital footprint in the country.
That appears to be one of the catalysts for BMW’s new partnership with Tencent. The Chinese tech giant, which is best known for WeChat and runs an expanding cloud computing business, said on Friday it’s setting up a data computing and storage platform for the German premium carmaker. Reuters reported that the pair plans to launch the computing center by the end of this year in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing.
The tie-up came months after BMW’s earlier data expansion in the world’s largest passenger car market. In February, Here — a Google Maps alternative partly owned by BWM — joined forces with Chinese navigation service Navinfo, which would help Here collect data locally. It’s perhaps by no coincidence that Navinfo and Tencent both bought small shares in Here three years ago.
As BMW gets more familiar with China’s road conditions, there’s no reason why it won’t apply the data to its freshly minted ride-hailing venture.
Teaming up with BMW can be a big win for Tencent, which has been placing more focus on enterprise-facing endeavors as its main gaming business copes with regulatory pressure. In the world of transportation, “Tencent is committed to assisting automotive companies in the digital transformation,” said Dowson Tong, the company’s president of Cloud and Smart Industry, in a statement.
BMW has previously sought another Chinese tech leader to automate its vehicles. It has been working with Baidu, the country’s largest search engine provider with a growing list of artificial intelligence initiatives, on automated driving since 2014.
Last October, the duo ramped up their alliance after the German automaker joined Baidu’s autonomous driving open platform Apollo. The deal carried larger diplomatic significance as it came about during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit in Germany to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Baidu president Zhang Yaqin said at the time the deal was meant to “accelerate the development of autonomous driving technologies that align with the Chinese market.”
BMW’s relationship with Tencent, on the other hand, has previously played out on other fronts, including joint research into autonomous driving security and testing that involved Tencent’s noted Keen Security Lab.
Baidu and Tencent don’t compete directly for their core businesses, but both are making a big push into the future of mobility, whether the effort pertains to in-car entertainment or self-driving. It’s not uncommon for tech rivals in China to target the same partner. A spokeswoman for BMW told TechCrunch that “there is no overlap in the collaboration” and the German firm is “cooperating with different top-notch Chinese companies in different fields.”
Indeed, the setup with Tencent seems more comprehensive at first glance. The Chinese company is providing “IT architecture, tools and platforms supporting the entire process of [BMW’s] automated driving research and development,” according to the spokeswoman. When it comes to Baidu, she cited an example of the pair working on a self-driving safety white paper that also involved ten other partners.
That might be a roundabout way of saying that the Baidu alliance is looser. It’s worth pointing out that BMW isn’t unique to Apollo, which bills itself as the “Android for autonomous cars” and now counts more than 100 auto partners from across the world.
A large network helps generate conversations and potential leads down the road, but keeping it this way could compromise the depth of “collaboration” — a word that’s too often co-opted by publicists. As Cao Xudong, founder of Chinese autonomous driving unicorn Momenta, told TechCrunch earlier, collaboration in the auto sector “demands deep, resource-intensive collaboration, so less [fewer partnerships] is believed to be more.”
What about the other heavyweight, Alibaba, which also wants to own the future of driving? The Chinese e-commerce and cloud computing company has become pally with state-owned car maker SAIC, with which it has set up a joint venture called Banma to create autonomous driving solutions. This existing marriage means BMW will unlikely tap Alibaba for automation, an employee at a major Chinese self-driving startup suggested to me.