Chinese automaker Geely launches luxury EV brand Zeekr

Chinese automaker Geely Automobile Holdings is launching a new brand of premium electric vehicles as it aims to capture a share of the luxury EV market that has been dominated by Tesla and other homegrown companies.

The new brand of vehicles, called Zeekr, will be manufactured by parent company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. The first Zeekr vehicles are expected to be delivered in the third quarter of 2021.

The launch of Zeekr, which was first reported by Reuters and confirmed today by Geely, has been couched as a bid to take on Tesla in China. Tesla has had success in the country, reporting in a recent regulatory filing that sales in China more than doubled last year, from $2.9 billion in 2019 to $6.6 billion in 2020. But Tesla is hardly the only competition in China, the world’s largest market for electric vehicles.

Zeekr will have to jostle with domestic start-ups Li Auto and NIO that also offer luxury car models. While Geely remained the highest-selling Chinese auto brand by units sold in 2020 – its fourth consecutive year in the top spot – net profits dropped 32% last year, according to financial results posted Tuesday.

The Zeekr marque will be manufactured by Geely Holding using its Sustainable Experience Architecture, an open-source EV technology that the company said offers driving ranges of up to 435 miles (700 km) as well as smart connectivity options. Geely has plans to deploy the architecture across its nine automotive brands (the company is a minority shareholder of Daimler AG and owner of Volvo Cars) – and sell to other manufacturers.

Eric Li, founder of Geely Holding, said in a statement that the company intends to make the architecture accessible to other car makers.

The SEA platform is just one piece of Geely’s plans to position itself as a leading source of electric vehicle manufacturing and technology. Last month, Geely and Volvo Cars announced they had axed plans to merge but will instead set up a standalone company that will develop next-gen hardware and software for electric vehicles across its brands and with other manufacturers. The two companies will also jointly source batteries and electric motors under the new collaboration.

Geely Holding is also setting the stage to take on a larger role in manufacturing for other car companies, with plans for a joint venture with Chinese company Foxconn Technology Group – Apple’s main supplier – aimed at contract manufacturing for automakers. Geely said it would partner with Chinese tech giant Baidu in a separate venture to build EVs, also with its SEA platform. Baidu has been developing intelligent driving technologies, including autonomous driving, which it said it would contribute to the new company.

Zeekr will be jointly owned by the subsidiary and its parent with a 51% and 49% share structure, with a joint investment of 2 billion yuan ($307 million).

Blackberry and Baidu deepen autonomous, connected car partnership

Blackberry and Chinese search engine giant Baidu have agreed to expand a partnership that aims to give automakers the tools they need to launch next-generation connected and autonomous vehicles in China.

Under the deal, Baidu’s high-definition maps will be integrated into Blackberry’s QNX Neutrino Real-Time Operating System. The embedded system will be mass produced in the upcoming GAC New Energy Aion models from the electric vehicle arm of GAC Group, one of the country’s top three automakers that produces more 2 million vehicles a year.

The aim of this new, expanded partnership is to “provide car manufacturers with a clear and fast path to the production of autonomous vehicles, with safety and security as the top priority,” according to a statement from Wang Yunpeng, senior director of the technology department of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group.

The partnership between Baidu and Blackberry is notable because it inserts a foreign operating system into Chinese-made vehicles even as the government there has called for native tech.

Blackberry’s QNX software handles the functional safety, network security and reliability pieces, while Baidu has invested in the development of artificial intelligence and deep learning.

“Together, we can help car manufacturers quickly produce safe autonomous vehicles and promote the development collaboratively of the intelligent networked automobile industry,” Yunpeng said.

Blackberry, once the dominate force in the smart phone industry, has found success getting its QNX technology into vehicles. Today, the software is used in the advanced driver assistance, digital instrument clusters and infotainment systems of more than 175 million vehicles.

The agreement builds on the two companies January 2018 agreement to make BlackBerry QNX’s operating system the foundation for Baidu’s ‘Apollo’ autonomous driving open platform.

The deal with Baidu also helps Blackberry continue to carve out market share in China, where it’s a more recent entrant. Last year, Blackberry announced QNX would be integrated into Tesla rival Xpeng’s electric vehicles in China.

“With BlackBerry QNX’s embedded software as its foundation, Baidu has made significant progress as part of its Apollo platform in establishing a commercial ecosystem for innovative technologies that OEMs can leverage for their next generation vehicles,” Dhiraj Handa, vice president of channel, partners and APAC, BlackBerry Technology Solutions, said in a statement.

Baidu’s autonomous driving program, known as Apollo, has been described as the “an Android for smart driving.” The Apollo program has landed more than hundred manufacturing and supplier partners. Baidu has also been busy testing autonomous driving and launch a robotaxi fleet in September.

The deal also comes on the heels of Baidu’s push beyond automotive software and into the production of vehicles. Baidu announced earlier this month that it plans to set up a new company to produce electric vehicles with the help of Chinese automaker Geely. Baidu will provide so-called smart driving technologies while Geely handles will the design, engineering and manufacturing of the vehicles.

Foxconn, Geely team up to build electric, autonomous and shared vehicles for automakers

The electric, autonomous vehicles of the future might be manufactured by Apple’s main supplier Foxconn and Chinese automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group.

The two companies have agreed to form a joint venture focused on contract manufacturing for automakers, with a specific focus on electrification, connectivity and autonomous driving technology as well as vehicles designed for sharing. Each party will hold an equal 50% stake in new joint venture. The board of directors will consist of five members with Foxconn appointing three including the Chairman and Geely Holding appointing two, according to a statement issued by the two companies.

The agreement follows moves by both companies to take larger roles in contract manufacturing for automakers. Earlier this week, Geely said it would help China’s search giant Baidu set up a company to produce electric vehicles. Baidu will provide smart driving technologies while Geely will be in charge of car design and manufacturing. Meanwhile, Foxconn has announced plans to help troubled Chinese electric car startup Byton build its M-Byte SUV.

Geely Holding Group CEO Daniel Donghui Li said that the global automotive industry is undergoing profound changes. Geely must “actively embrace change build alliances, and synergize resources to create greater value for our users,” he said, adding that Foxconn’s expertise will offer important insight for the transformation and evolution of the automotive industry.

The joint venture will provide consulting services on whole vehicles, parts, intelligent drive systems and other automotive ecosystem platforms to automakers as well as ride-sharing companies. Geely will bring its experience in the automotive fields of design, engineering, R&D, intelligent manufacturing, supply chain management and quality control while Foxconn will bring its manufacturing and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) know-how.

The aim, the companies said, is to help automakers accelerate their transition to new innovative and efficient manufacturing processes and business models based on connected, autonomous, shared, and electrified technologies (referred to in the industry as CASE).

Dozens of new companies aiming to become the next Tesla or trying to commercialize autonomous vehicles have popped up in recent years, giving this Foxconn-Geely enterprise a long list of potential customers. One of the primary roadblocks to making vehicles at volume is the billions of dollars required to build and tool a factory. That need for capital has prompted a number of EV startups to become publicly traded companies by merging with a special purpose acquisition company. Canoo, Fisker, Lordstown Motors and Nikola Corp. are a few that have merged with a SPAC, otherwise known as a blank-check company.

Foxconn Technology Group chairman Young-way Liu called the alliance a milestone in cooperation between the automotive and information and communication technology (ICT) industries.

“With Foxconn’s globally leading R&D technologies, intelligent manufacturing, and hardware-software integration capabilities, the two parties form a highly complementary partnership which allows us to better serve and meet the diverse needs of different customers, and offer the most advanced, fastest, cost-effective full value-chain vehicle production service platform,” Young-way Liu said, adding that the partnership will result in tremendous change in the development of the automotive industry. 

China’s search giant Baidu to set up an EV making venture

China’s search giant Baidu is extending its car ambitions from mere software to production. The company said Monday that it will set up a company to produce electric vehicles with the help of Chinese automaker Geely. Baidu, a dominant player in China’s internet search market for the last decade or so, will provide smart driving technologies while Geely, which has an impending merger with Sweden’s Volvo, will be in charge of car design and manufacturing.

The move marks the latest company in China’s internet industry to enter the EV space. In November, news arrived that Alibaba and Chinese state-owned carmaker SAIC Motor had joined hands to produce electric cars. Ride-share company Didi and EV maker BYD co-developed a model for ride-hailing, which is already attracting customers like Ideanomics. Meanwhile, the stocks of China’s Tesla challengers, such as Xpeng, Li Auto, and NIO, have been in a steady uptrend over the past year.

Baidu’s car push is part of its effort to diversify a business relying on search advertising revenue. New media platforms such as ByteDance’s Toutiao news aggregator and short-video app Douyin come with their own search feature and have gradually eroded the share of traditional search engines like Baidu. Short video services have emerged as the second-most popular channel for internet search in China, trailing after web search engines and coming ahead of social networks and e-commerce, data analytics firm Jiguang shows.

Baidu has been working aggressively on autonomous driving since 2017. Its Apollo ecosystem, which is billed as “an Android for smart driving,” has accumulated over a hundred manufacturing and supplier partners. Baidu has also been busy testing autonomous driving and recently rolled out a robotaxi fleet.

The new venture will operate as a Baidu subsidiary where Geely will serve as a strategic partner and Baidu units like Apollo and Baidu Maps will contribute capabilities. The firm will cover the entire industrial chain, including vehicle design, research and development, manufacturing, sales, and service.

It’s unclear how Baidu’s tie-up with Geely will affect Apollo’s operation, though Baidu promised in its announcement that it will “uphold its spirit of open collaboration across the AI technology industry, striving to work closely with its ecosystem partners to advance the new wave of intelligent transformation.”

“At Baidu, we have long believed in the future of intelligent driving and have over the past decade invested heavily in AI to build a portfolio of world-class self-driving services,” said Robin Li, co-founder and chief executive officer of Baidu.

“We believe that by combining Baidu’s expertise in smart transportation, connected vehicles and autonomous driving with Geely’s expertise as a leading automobile and EV manufacturer, the new partnership will pave the way for future passenger vehicles.”

Baidu to acquire Joyy’s Chinese live streaming service YY for $3.6B

Baidu said on Monday it is acquiring Joyy’s live streaming service YY Live in China for $3.6 billion in an all-cash deal as the Chinese internet giant makes further push to diversify beyond its core search business.

The announcement, which Baidu shared on the sidelines of its quarterly earnings, is the Chinese firm’s biggest foray into the growing market of video streaming. It comes at a time when the company has been struggling to fight new comers such as ByteDance.

YY has amassed over 4 million paying subscribers who watch influencers perform and sell a range of items on the video app. The streaming service last year bought stake worth $1.45 billion in Bigo, a Singapore-based startup that operates streaming apps Bigo Live and Like in a push to expand outside of China.

YY today is only selling its China business to Baidu. The closing of the transaction is subject to certain conditions and is currently expected to occur in the first half of 2021, Baidu said.

“This transaction will catapult Baidu into a leading platform for live streaming and diversify our revenue source.” said Robin Li, co-founder and chief executive of Baidu, in a statement.

“YY Live stands to benefit from Baidu’s large traffic and thriving mobile ecosystem, while Baidu will receive immediate operational experience and knowhow for large-scale video-based social media development, as well as an enviable creator network that will further strengthen Baidu’s massive content provider network. Together with the team from YY Live, Baidu hopes to explore the next-generation livestreaming and video-based social media that can expand beyond entertainment into the diversified verticals on Baidu platform.”

More to follow…

Baidu’s smart voice unit to raise independent round on $2.9B valuation

Baidu, China’s dominant search service and a leader in artificial intelligence research, is further diversifying into the smart voice space as its smart living group is poised to raise an independent round on a 20 billion yuan ($2.94 billion) post-money valuation.

The fundraising move signals a potential spinoff of the smart living group down the road. The unit is best known for its voice assistant DuerOS, the search giant’s Alexa equivalent, which was active on 200 million devices including both Baidu’s own branded speaker and a variety of third-party gadgets as of early 2019.

Baidu shipped around 15 million units of its Xiaodu speakers in 2019, making it the second-largest player in China following Alibaba and ahead of Xiaomi, according to market research firm IDC.

Investors including Citic Private Equity Funds Management (CPE), state conglomerate Citic’s asset management firm, as well as Baidu’s venture arm Baidu Capital and IDG Capital, have entered definitive agreements to invest an undisclosed amount into the smart living group’s Series A round.

China has in recent years seen increasing cooperation between its internet firms and industrial incumbents from sectors spanning real estate, healthcare, education to finance, which are eager to embrace digital solutions.

The transaction is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to Baidu. Upon completion of the deal, Baidu will be the majority shareholder with super-voting rights in the smart living group and continue to consolidate the unit’s financial results.

The competition in voice intelligence is a race to secure partnerships with hardware makers, which could in turn contribute consumer usage and data. Besides selling speakers, Baidu has a leg up in putting its voice assistant in connected cars, thanks to its ecosystem of automakers using its open-source autonomous driving platform Apollo. Alibaba, needless to say, can leverage its dominance in retail to market its smart voice system and speakers. Xiaomi, on the other hand, commands an portolio of Internet of Things allies that may benefit from gaining voice capabilities.

Baidu’s endeavor in AI is marked by the lineup of famed scientists it has attracted (and lost) in recent years, including Andrew Ng and Lu Qi. The company vowed to stake its future on AI early on, though its nascent AI-related businesses have yet to deliver significant revenue. The 20-year-old firm continues to rely on search to drive ad revenue as it faces growing competition from advertisers’ new darling, TikTok parent ByteDance.

Where is voice tech going?

2020 has been all but normal. For businesses and brands. For innovation. For people.

The trajectory of business growth strategies, travel plans and lives have been drastically altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global economic downturn with supply chain and market issues, and a fight for equality in the Black Lives Matter movement — amongst all that complicated lives and businesses already.

One of the biggest stories in emerging technology is the growth of different types of voice assistants:

  • Niche assistants such as Aider that provide back-office support.
  • Branded in-house assistants such as those offered by BBC and Snapchat.
  • White-label solutions such as Houndify that provide lots of capabilities and configurable tool sets.

With so many assistants proliferating globally, voice will become a commodity like a website or an app. And that’s not a bad thing — at least in the name of progress. It will soon (read: over the next couple years) become table stakes for a business to have voice as an interaction channel for a lovable experience that users expect. Consider that feeling you get when you realize a business doesn’t have a website: It makes you question its validity and reputation for quality. Voice isn’t quite there yet, but it’s moving in that direction.

Voice assistant adoption and usage are still on the rise

Adoption of any new technology is key. A key inhibitor of technology is often distribution, but this has not been the case with voice. Apple, Google, and Baidu have reported hundreds of millions of devices using voice, and Amazon has 200 million users. Amazon has a slightly more difficult job since they’re not in the smartphone market, which allows for greater voice assistant distribution for Apple and Google.

Image Credits: Mark Persaud

But are people using devices? Google said recently there are 500 million monthly active users of Google Assistant. Not far behind are active Apple users with 375 million. Large numbers of people are using voice assistants, not just owning them. That’s a sign of technology gaining momentum — the technology is at a price point and within digital and personal ecosystems that make it right for user adoption. The pandemic has only exacerbated the use as Edison reported between March and April — a peak time for sheltering in place across the U.S.

After India and US, Japan looks to ban TikTok and other Chinese apps

A group of Japanese lawmakers is seeking to restrict the use of TikTok and other apps developed by Chinese firms, following the footstep of India, which has already blocked dozens of Chinese apps, and the U.S., which is floating the idea of a ban.

The decision was first reported by the Japanese national broadcaster NHK. The lawyers shared the same concern as officials in the U.S. and India that their domestic user data could end up in the hand of Beijing, and planned to submit the proposal to the Japanese government as early as September.

Japan was one of TikTok’s first overseas success cases despite being considered a tough nut for foreign internet firms to crack. The nascent localization team went all out to attract celebrity users and made its breakthrough with Kinoshita Yukina, a TV personality, after holding “six or seven rounds of discussions” with her studio. Kinoshita’s participation ushered in other stars, who brought with them flocks of fans to the platform.

In the Japanese iOS store, TikTok has consistently ranked at the top among entertainment apps and is the fifth-most downloaded app across all categories in the country as of this writing, according to research firm App Annie.

In response to scrutiny coming from Japan, a TikTok spokesperson reiterated the app’s distance from Chinese control in a statement to TechCrunch:

“There’s a lot of misinformation about TikTok out there. TikTok has an American CEO, a Chief Information Security Officer with decades of industry, U.S. military and law enforcement experience, and a U.S. team that works diligently to develop a best-in-class security infrastructure. Four of our parent company’s five board seats are controlled by some of the world’s best-respected global investors. TikTok U.S/ user data is stored in the U.S. and Singapore, with strict controls on employee access.”

Other Chinese tech giants have their eyes locked on Japan for years. Baidu, for instance, operates Simeji, one of the most popular input methods among Japanese. Line is the main chat app in the country, but WeChat is essential to Japanese businesses with Chinese ties — which there are many given China is Japan’s main trade partner. While the Indian ban is certainly a debacle for Chinese developers coveting the fastest-growing internet market, the country’s ARPU, or average revenue per user, also remains low compared to numbers in the West. Japan, on the other hand, is a much more lucrative market.

Velodyne becomes latest tech company to go public using a SPAC, eschewing the traditional IPO path

Velodyne Lidar, the leading supplier of a sensor widely considered critical to the commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles, said Thursday it has struck a deal to merge with special-purpose acquisition company Graf Industrial Corp., with a market value of $1.8 billion.

The company said it was able to raise $150 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, from new institutional investors as well as existing shareholders of Graf Industrial. Through the transaction, Velodyne will have about $192 million in cash on its balance sheet.

Velodyne’s founder David Hall along with backers Ford, Chinese search engine Baidu, Hyundai Mobis and Nikon Corp. will keep an 80% stake in the combined company. Hall will become executive chairman and Anand Gopalan will keep his CEO position.

The merger is expected to close in the third quarter of 2020. The combined company will remain on the NYSE and trade under a new ticker symbol VLDR following the close of the business combination, Velodyne said.

The agreement marks the latest company to turn to SPACs in lieu of a traditional IPO process. Earlier this week, online used car marketplace startup Shift Technologies announced an agreement to merge with SPAC Insurance Acquisition Corp. The newly combined company will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol. Nikola Motor also went public via a SPAC earlier this year.

Velodyne will become a publicly traded company amid a period of consolidation in the broader autonomous vehicle industry. Startups, automakers and tech giants have extended their timelines in the capitally intensive pursuit of developing and deploying AVs. Some startups have been swallowed up by larger companies, while others have become defunct. It has also prompted automakers in the past 18 months to shift more resources and attention toward advanced driver assistance systems in passenger cars, trucks and SUVs.

Lidar is perhaps one of the most crowded sub categories in the autonomous vehicle industry. Lidar is a sensor that measures distance using laser light to generate highly accurate 3D maps of the world around the car. The sensor is considered by most in the self-driving car industry a key piece of technology required to safely deploy robotaxis and other autonomous vehicles.

Velodyne is best known for its “KFC bucket” spinning-laser lidar. The design was inspired by sensor failures in vehicles competing in the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004. Hall developed the spinning laser lidar and sold the sensors to teams competing in a future autonomous vehicle DARPA competition. The KFC buckets were the go-to lidar sensors for companies working on autonomous vehicles. Waymo, back when it was just the Google self-driving project, even used Velodyne LiDAR sensors until 2012.

However, Spinning lidar units are expensive and mechanically complex. It spurred a new generation of lidar startups to try new approaches. Today, there are dozens of lidar companies — some counts track upwards of 70 — trying to convince automakers and AV developers to use their sensors. And they’re all aiming for Velodyne.

This new generation of companies has prompted Velodyne to evolve, as well. The company announced at CES 2020 in January new sensors, including a tiny $100 lidar unit called Velabit, as well the VelaDome and a software product called Vella.

“There’s no argument about the market opportunity for lidar,” Gopalan told TechCrunch reporter Devin Coldewey back in January. “I think the right conversation is about what you want to do with it. Others are focused on level 2+ or 3 [autonomy, i.e. above simple driver assistance] — what we want to do is short-circuit that approach. The only reason it’s not being adopted at lower levels is price. If I say you can have lidar for a hundred dollars, of course you’re going to use it. Under a hundred dollars, you can’t even imagine the applications you open up: drones, home robotics, sidewalk robots.”

The company has spent the past several years focused on reducing the cost of its lidar, as well as diversifying its portfolio. The Velabit is just one example of the company’s efforts to lock in customers outside of the AV industry. The small sensor doesn’t have the capabilities needed for autonomous vehicles. Instead, Velodyne sees an application for the sensor to be used on smaller industrial robots.

Chinese online learning app Zuoyebang raises $750M

Zuoyebang, a Beijing-headquartered startup that runs an online learning app, said on Monday it has raised $750 million in a new financing round as investors demonstrate their continued trust in — and focus on — Asia’s booming edtech market.

U.S. investment firm Tiger Global and Hong Kong-based private equity firm FountainVest Partners led the six-year-old startup’s Series E financing round. Existing investors including SoftBank’s Vision Fund, Sequoia Capital China, Xiang He Capital, Qatar Investment Authority also participated in the round, which brings the startup’s to-date raise to $1.33 billion.

As we have previously noted in our coverage, Zuoyebang’s app helps students — ranging from kindergarten to 12th-grade — solve problems and understand complex concepts.

The app, which offers online courses and runs live lessons, also allows students to take a picture of a problem, upload it to the app, and get its solution. The startup claims it uses artificial intelligence to identify the question and its answer.

Zuoyebang has amassed 170 million monthly active users, about 50 million of whom use the service each day, the startup said in a post (in Chinese). More than 12 million of these users are paid subscribers, it said.

The announcement today further illustrates the opportunities investors are seeing in the online education sector in Asia. Last week, Indian edtech giant Byju’s announced it had received fresh funds from Mary Meeker’s fund, Bond.

SoftBank counts Zuoyebang among its 88 portfolio startups that have demonstrated growth in recent quarters. Zuoyebang was founded by Baidu in 2015. A year later the Chinese search giant spun off Zuoyebang into an independent startup.

Zuoyebang competes with a handful of startups in China, including Yuanfudao, which offers a similar service. In March, Yuanfudao said it had secured $1 billion in a financing round led by Tencent and Hillhouse Capital. The startup was valued at $7.8 billion at the time. Reuters reported earlier this month that Zuoyebang could be valued at $6.5 billion in the new financing round.

According to research firm iResearch, the online education market in China could be worth $81 billion in two years.