WM Motor, SenseTime to jointly develop AI applications for cars

December 06, 2018 15:25
WM Motor's first car, the electric SUV EX5. The new energy vehicle maker was founded by automobile veteran Freeman Shen in 2015. Photo: Reuters, Xinhua

WM Motor, a Shanghai-based new energy vehicle maker, has partnered with Chinese artificial intelligence startup SenseTime to apply the latter's facial recognition technology in automobiles.

Freeman Shen, founder, chairman and chief executive of WM Motor, told the Hong Kong Economic Journal in an interview that the company is focusing on enhancing the interaction and communication between a smart electric vehicle and its human driver.

The market for new energy vehicles in China has rapidly grown in recent years, with BYD (01211.HK), Geely (00175.HK), as well as startups Nio and Leap Motors, competing in the field while trying to grab market share from foreign EV giants such as Tesla.

To differentiate itself from domestic peers, Shen said his company is focusing its technology and innovation efforts on the "human-vehicle interaction".

WM Motor's smart electric vehicle, for example, will use SenseTime’s facial recognition technology for driver identification.

As the owner of the smart electric vehicle approaches, the glass window welcomes her by displaying dynamic images showing the car's battery status and other trip information such as an itinerary plan. The vehicle also has the ability to identify signs of driver fatigue or distraction.

The four-year-old SenseTime makes systems that analyze faces and images on a huge scale with its facial recognition technology.

It hit the unicorn status after gaining a market valuation of US$1.5 billion in a funding round in October 2017.  It has received backing from heavyweight investors such as Qualcomm, Alibaba Group, Tiger Global, and IDG Capital.

Shen expects improved battery technology over the next three to four years, which will enable an electric car to achieve the distance and power of a typical fuel car.

He is also undertaking projects to make charging, as well as locating charging stations, more convenient.

In addition to the smart electric vehicle, the company is also offering smart mobility service, e.g., the “GetNGo” mobile app, which will help the driver find the nearest charging station and provide features such as navigation, charging service booking and payment.

Shen is the former chairman of Volvo China who oversaw the acquisition of the Swedish automobile giant by China’s Geely in 2010. He had spent more than a decade working at auto parts maker BorgWarner Inc. and Italian automaker Fiat SpA.

The automobile veteran co-founded his new venture, WM Motors, with Napoleon Du in 2015, and has raised US$1.2 billion from three funding rounds, according to CrunchBase data.

The company has received backing from investors including Chinese internet and social media giant Tencent Holdings (00700.HK); the country’s dominant search engine Baidu’s venture arm, Baidu Capital; and venture capital firm Sequoia Capital.

It started electric vehicle production this year and delivered the first batch of its EX5 electric SUV in September.

“I believe we can sell at least 1.2 million electric vehicles this year, and the sales volume will reach two to three million units next year,” Shen told HKEJ.

With its EX5 priced between 186,000 yuan and 232,000 yuan (US$27,000-US$33,700), Shen said WM Motor's electric vehicle would be a mainstream car instead of a rich man’s toy like Tesla, adding that there are not many choices in the mid-range market in mainland China.

Nio, which calls itself the "Tesla of China", went public in the New York stock market in September. Byton is also targeting an IPO to fund its expansion.

Shen stressed that the company has no plans to go public at the current stage. “We are still a small company, a startup, and we will launch our new products next year, with a new product in the first half of next year and the second half of the year."

“Let’s focus on the product first," Shen said.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 6

Translation by Ben Ng with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal