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Alibaba teams up with Audi, Renault and Honda on smart cars

E-commerce giant beefing up auto industry efforts in push to diversify business

Alibaba is putting its Tmall Genie smart speakers into cars.   © Reuters

SHANGHAI -- Audi, Renault and Honda have become the latest carmakers to team up with Alibaba Group Holding in connected car technology, as the Chinese e-commerce conglomerate seeks to diversify its business while global auto companies look to serve China's tech-savvy middle class.

Under the partnership -- announced on Tuesday at CES Asia technology show in Shanghai -- the three companies will install Alibaba's artificial intelligence-powered smart speaker in their new vehicles. Known as Tmall Genie, the speaker helps drivers find nearby tourist attractions, purchase movie tickets and even order takeout food, all via voice command. Those who have Tmall Genie-compatible smart devices at home can also heat up their room or turn on dishwashers while they are still on the way, the companies said.

Automakers are keen to find new ways to spur demand after the Chinese car market reported its first slowdown in more than two decades last year and electric vehicle makers face a winding-down of subsidies.

The upcoming smart car "allows consumers to experience a deeper connection between scenarios in their lives at home and their lives on the go," said Guillaume Sicard, a vice president of Renault. By 2020, one out of every two new cars sold in China will be equipped with smart features and at least partial autonomous functions, according to guidelines issued last year by the National Development and Reform Commission, the country's powerful planning agency.

Chinese tech companies have shown a growing interest in serving the old-school auto industry. In April, social media and gaming behemoth Tencent Holdings joined a $150 million venture with government-backed Chinese carmaker GAC Motor to ramp up their efforts in smart driving. Ride-hailing unicorn Didi Chuxing, meanwhile, has inked a deal with state-owned BAIC to develop Internet-connected cars.

"Intelligent connected cars are set to become a vital means in reducing traffic casualties, road congestion and energy consumption," industry and information minister Miao Wei told participants at an industry conference in Beijing last year. Based on Miao's estimate, the Chinese smart car market will reach 100 billion yuan ($14.5 billion) by 2020.

The French carmaker Renault aims to roll out a smart vehicle co-developed with Alibaba as early as this year, while production with the two other carmakers is still under discussion, Alibaba said.

The Hangzhou-based company rolled out its Tmall Genie auto solution last April and has already partnered with automakers including BMW and Volvo Cars to provide smart cars for Chinese drivers. The auto application is based on the Tmall Genie smart speaker that Alibaba launched in 2017. According to the company, it has shipped 10 million units of the device so far.

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