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Taiwan smart-car designer teams up with Acer

Studio X-Gene founders Albert Yang and Riviera Chiang pose with their first-generation electric smart car, the Avant GT. They say the car may go into mass production in the "near future."

TAOYUAN, Taiwan -- A sleek, Taiwan-made electric car with an advanced telematics system attracted great interest at an event in May held by PC maker Acer to showcase the tech company's latest "cloud" technologies.

     Acer's foray into smart cars is part of the company's shift away from the dwindling notebook personal computer market. It wants to jump onto the Internet of things bandwagon to catch the next wave of innovation in mobile technology.

     Acer provides the technologies that allow cars to transmit data to a remote site for storage and analysis. But the mastermind behind the vehicle is leading Taiwanese car designer Studio X-Gene.

     The Avant GT is Studio X-Gene's first-generation electric smart car. The 1,800kg prototype comes with Linux-based telematics that replaces the traditional in-vehicle infotainment system and allow third-party developers to create related apps on an open platform. The company integrates Google Maps-based navigation, real-time battery monitoring and remote vehicle security surveillance capabilities into apps for Android phones, and allows mobile devices to be connected to an in-vehicle screen via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

     "Taiwanese car-design companies can now be quite competitive internationally in the mobile age thanks to the advanced technologies provided by Taiwan's IT sector," Studio X-Gene Executive Director Albert Yang told the Nikkei Asian Review.

     While Studio X-Gene built the Avant GT in its own workshop in the industrial county of Taoyuan in northern Taiwan, it tapped Acer affiliates Wistron and Qisda for panels and meters. In addition, the vehicle's motor and batteries were supplied by Taiwan's leading power solutions provider, Delta Electronics.

     Studio X-Gene now generates annual revenue of 100 million New Taiwan dollars ($3.34 million), making it a midsize company in its sector. It has a staff of 60 -- with employees from Taiwan, China and Italy -- and two offices, in Taoyuan and Shanghai, Yang said.

Studio X-Gene's Avant GT comes with an advanced telematics system controllable by Android phones.

     The car-design company was founded in 2000 by marketing and sales guru Yang and his wife, industrial designer Riviera Chiang. Both were already veterans of Taiwan's auto-related industry when they decided to start their own company.

     With their longtime expertise and extensive connections in the field, Yang and Chiang have been able to serve major international clients, including Mercedes-Benz and Shanghai General Motors, GM's China operation.

     In 2009, Yang and Chiang began to take their design ambitions a step further, turning their attention to the emerging electric car sector. They also met with Acer founder Stan Shih for the first time that year. Shih injected funds into Studio X-Gene through his personal investment company in May 2011.

     Shih is not the only Taiwanese tech boss interested in the emerging smart car sector. Foxconn Technology Group Chairman and CEO Terry Gou has been keen, too. The Taiwanese electronics conglomerate has been supplying parts to Tesla of the U.S. and is eager to secure a deal to assemble vehicles for the Palo Alto, California-based company.

     While Yang expressed a desire to strive for a breakthrough internationally in a sector Taiwan is not traditionally strong in, he also acknowledged that Taiwanese companies still lack strength in such key components as batteries.

     At the same time, Yang is hoping the Avant GT will be able to break into the Chinese market as the first step to promote its smart electric car design.

     "We are still talking to possible Chinese collaborators, and chances are we may be able to provide solutions to a Chinese client in the second half of this year. It is possible the Avant GT will then go into mass production and become available in the near future," Yang said.

     This reporter went for a 10-minute ride in the Avant GT, which seemed both smooth in its handling and "smart" in its functions.

     Still, Yang and Chiang, ever the perfectionists, expressed a strong desire for further improvement.

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