Pilotless scheme
Mar 10, 2017 (WiC 357)

“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” Dr Emmett Brown told Marty McFly as they prepared to blast into the year 2015 in the film Back to the Future. Perhaps that destination in time would have been more appropriately set for July 2017, when Dubai says it will be launching the world’s first pilotless, flying taxi service.

In February the Dubai authorities announced a plan to employ drones to complete short passenger trips. The company making the drones is a Chinese one, called Ehang.

Ehang unveiled its Ehang 184 passenger drone at the CES tech show in Las Vegas last January as the world’s first electric, self-piloted drone, claiming it had already completed 100 passenger-laden test flights.

The drone carries a single passenger weighing up to 100kg, and has room for a small suitcase. Fully charged, it can travel up to 50km per hour, to an altitude of 3.5km and for a duration of 30 minutes – meaning it is viable only for journeys within cities as opposed to between them. One feature of Ehang 184 that might cause some concern is, of course, that it has no pilot. Passengers use a tablet inside the “cockpit” to enter their destination and the drone does the rest. The drone also has no manual override but is designed to land in the closest “safe location” in the event of any problems.

However, tech portal The Verge is “extremely sceptical” that the idea will ever get off the ground, noting that Dubai has a history of announcing outlandish tech partnerships – such as jetpacks for fire-fighters tackling skyscraper blazes. It also believes the Ehang 184 is simply a publicity gimmick for the company’s other commercial drones. Time will tell.

The richest delivery man
Mar 3, 2017 (WiC 356)

Courier firms from Zhejiang’s Tonglu county provide the logistical backbone for China’s booming e-commerce industry but having crowded out much of the local competition, cracks are beginning to emerge in the Tonglu Gang’s franchisee-based growth model (see WiC355).

This has not been a problem for SF Express, the main rival of the Tonglu companies such as YTO, ZTO and STO. SF Express focuses more on business-to-business deliveries but more importantly the Shenzhen firm also owns its entire courier network. The NASDAQ-listed ZTO, in comparison, has more than 7,000 service centres or branches run by external franchisees.

SF Express’ business model seems to have made it a favourite with investors. The company officially completed a backdoor listing on Shenzhen’s stock exchange last week. The stock climbed the maximum 10% daily limit for four consecutive sessions. As of Tuesday, its market value had reached Rmb280 billion ($40 billion) – making it the biggest Shenzhen-listed firm by market capitalisation.

The successful debut has also made SF Express’ boss Wang Wei (see WiC183 for our first profile of the low key delivery man) China’s third richest man. Thanks to his 65% stake, Wang is worth $26 billion. The news portal Sina Finance says Wang is now even richer than Pony Ma, the chairman of Shenzhen-based internet giant Tencent.

“If SF continues its current bull run, Wang is only five trading days away from overtaking Jack Ma [of Alibaba] and Wang Jianlian [of Wanda] to become China’s richest man,” Sina says.

Hong Kong media reckoned on Wednesday he’d already surpassed Li Ka-shing, the Hongkonger who once ranked as Asia’s richest man.

One at a time
Feb 24, 2017 (WiC 355)

Call for an Uber in London and you’ll likely get a driver turning up in a Prius – a car favoured for its fuel efficiency. Toyota’s hybrid vehicle has been a worldwide success story except in one place: China.

Sina Finance pointed out in a recent article that only one Prius was sold in China in December. Yes, one. Sina says that consumers are “lukewarm” on the vehicle, noting that the single car sold was the first to leave a Toyota forecourt since May. Citing Bloomberg Intelligence data, it also said Toyota sold just 76 Prius cars in the whole of last year, down from 700 the year before.

Auto analyst Wen Xuhui explains that the Prius does not conform to a design that Chinese consumers are comfortable with. Their familiarity is more with other Toyota models like the Camry and the Corolla – both of which they associate with high quality – and Wen adds that many Chinese consumers are smitten with larger SUVs too.

Making life tougher for the Prius is that Toyota now sells hybrid versions of the Camry and the Corolla in the Chinese market at a similar price to the Prius.

Indeed, Toyota sold 47,000 of the hybrid versions last year out of almost 72,076 hybrids it sold nationwide in 2016 (a record amount).

To reiterate: that’s about 72,000 Toyota hybrids, plus 76 of the Prius.

Another case, perhaps, of what works elsewhere, doesn’t always work in China.