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The Self-Driving Car and Greater China

Blog: Technology

7/1/2016
— Beth Evans 

During the past five years, I’ve focused on working with business-to-business technology clients, and in my personal life I’m not much of a car person. (A key motivation for my moving from our Seattle office to Hong Kong was so I could commute by subway, referred to locally as the MTR.) So you can imagine that it seemed like a tidal wave of change when technology industry buzz became all about cars, specifically self-driving cars. While much of the hype focuses on United States companies and cities, Greater China has a fascinating role to play in the world’s self-driven future, in both demand and supply.

On the demand side, there are convincing arguments that China will mass-adopt driver-less cars before the U.S. does. According to The New York Times, Reuters and WIRED, key reasons include:

  • Chinese consumers embrace new technology, especially self-driving cars. In 2015, 75 percent said they would likely try riding in one, versus just 52 percent of Americans.
  • Car ownership has not penetrated Chinese culture and is still mostly limited to the wealthy, so the inflection point for switching to self-driving cars could be now.
  • China is known for its government making big, bold investments in infrastructure and technology. Think high-speed rail and renewable energy.
  • The country has a strong existing automotive manufacturing industry.

This innovation and demand in China is no small deal given not only the scale of China as a consumer market but the Chinese technology industry’s increasing influence on the U.S. and Europe. WIRED declared on its April 2016 cover that “It’s time to copy China,” referring to Chinese startups with world-leading ideas. It has become almost commonplace for Chinese technology companies to grow into giants domestically then successfully expand west to compete with Europe and North America’s most popular brands.

On the supply side, it’s been said that an autonomous vehicle is a computer on wheels, requiring superb technology for the car to drive better than a human would. Companies in Greater China already design and produce a lot of the hardware for today’s computers and other smart devices, including smart technology inside existing cars. In fact, Taiwan-headquartered newspaper Digitimes outlined the lucrative market for local semiconductor companies to sell their chips to car manufacturers. Digitimes staff predicted that while there is huge money today in semiconductors that power partially automatous driving features like self-parking, the next wave of industry growth will come from the mass production of self-driving cars and their unique technical requirements.

The market for self-driving cars and their technology is up for grabs globally. Greater China has the ingredients to become its epicenter, in the forms of technical expertise, a culture of bold investment and a large consumer appetite. What will make or break the region’s ability to capitalize on this huge economic opportunity is speed and quality of innovation. With safety top of mind for passengers, car manufacturers and governments, the world’s next generation of technology giants will likely be whoever can convincingly supply self-driving cars with their best eyes, ears, reactions and decisions.

Beth Evans has worked in WE's Seattle, Hong Kong and Beijing offices in the past 4 years and she has been in tech PR for almost 6 years. Within tech, she is most enthusiastic for the interrelated explosion of data, mobility and cloud computing and she enjoys sharing her global perspective on global B2B tech clients. 

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