China Consumer

Viva Las Vegas

LeEco bets its future on driverless flash car

Jia Yueting, co-founder and head of Le Holdings Co Ltd, also known as LeEco and formerly as LeTV, unveils an all-electric battery "concept" car called LeSEE during a ceremony in Beijing

Jia Yueting: audacious vision

Apple’s digital assistant Siri gets around 2 billion requests per week and according to The Economist “Apple says Siri knows every possible way that users ask about sports scores”.

For example, when WiC asked Siri at the weekend what Manchester City’s latest result was, it promptly reverted with the 5-0 thrashing of West Ham last Friday. While that was impressive when we turned to tennis the outcome was a lot more random. We asked Siri about the result of Andy Murray’s last match with Novak Djokovic and were then asked to clarify if we meant the Los Angeles Kings or the St Louis Blues (ice hockey teams).

All of which goes to show that while voice-activated digital assistants have come a long way, Apple still has some way to go before Siri becomes a seamless means of getting information and of issuing practical instructions to your smartphone.

And as Christopher Mims pointed out this week in the Wall Street Journal, this is a pressing concern for Apple. He believes digital assistants (i.e. voice-based interfaces that incorporate artificial intelligence) are “the technology most likely to disrupt Apple as thoroughly as Apple disrupted the smartphone industry”.

He adds: “AI-powered voice assistants can directly replace interactions with mobile devices. It isn’t that screens will go away completely, but screens unattached to objects that can listen, talk back and operate with autonomy will rapidly become obsolete.” Mims is talking about such interfaces becoming powerful operating systems, giving their makers vast power – much as Microsoft enjoyed when its Windows software dominated PCs.

Those looking to edge Apple out, says Sims, are the likes of Amazon with its Alexa digital assistant (which now comes preloaded onto Huawei Mate 9 smartphones sold in the US) and Google Assistant.

In these coming voice-activated wars there will surely be Chinese contenders too, though for the moment they remain lower key. However, one firm that made its ambition clear at last week’s CES show in Las Vegas was LeEco, the debt-strapped firm behind electric carmaker Faraday Future.

We have written before about LeEco’s problems (see WiC346) but the firm’s boss Jia Yueting just made a splash in Sin City (he was even profiled in the Weekend FT’s ‘Corporate person in the news column’). At the CES event, Jia showed a video of his new FF91 crossover SUV accelerating faster than either a Tesla, a Bentley or a Ferrari. The car still needs to go into production, but when he unveiled the prototype in Vegas Jia proudly said “It is no longer just a car; it’s a new species. I am willing to devote everything to my dream – even my life.”

Which brings WiC back to the point made at the start of this article. The vision here is every bit as audacious as anything Apple, Amazon or Google have to offer. Faraday engineering head Nick Sampson told the FT that LeEco’s self-driving car represented a breakthrough that’s comparable to Apple’s creation of the iPhone 10 years ago. It is a car “that drives you, parks itself, adjusts the temperature, loads your music or movies or email”.

LeEco’s vision is for the car to be at the heart of an individual’s data ecosystem. It remains to be seen whether the FF91 uses its own voice-activated operating system or outsources to a third party like Amazon. But if LeEco succeeds in selling enough of its self-driving vehicles in China and the US – admittedly at this stage a big ‘if’ – Jia’s firm could emerge as a key player in the battle to decide which digital assistant prevails in the decade ahead.

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