Auto Industry

Reflected glory

Why Volkswagen has invested in Chinese voice recognition unicorn Mobvoi


Li Zhifei’s smart mirror

You may not have come across a ‘smart’ mirror before – unless you are thinking of the one in the Disney classic Snow White. In the contemporary context it is a car rear-view mirror that offers a variety of other services such as GPS, music playback, call alerts and (in China) WeChat notifications.

Such functions might be a distraction for drivers but in their defence, “smart” mirrors can also provide early warnings for collisions and alerts for situations when a car is straddling two lanes. These are two features found in the smart rear-view mirror offered by Beijing-based Mobvoi, called Ticmirror.

Mobvoi got its start by filling a gap for voice recognition technology. Foreign companies had taken a crack at the same task, but the nuances of Chinese dialects and colloquialisms meant that local insight was going to be needed.

Mobvoi was founded in 2012 by Li Zhifei, a PhD graduate from the John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering in Baltimore. According to his faculty magazine, Li “believes that computers should be able to see, hear, feel, and move. But mostly they need to be able to speak to us and respond intelligently to what we say.” Li graduated in 2010 and he joined Google’s voice translation team. He left to found his own company two years later, subsequently taking along fellow Google staffer Xin Lei, who was a researcher on speech recognition software.

Mobvoi’s first product was Chumen Wenwen (which translates as “Asking when out”). The software worked much like Apple’s Siri, allowing the user to ask their phone questions. It initially ran through the company’s WeChat account, making it widely available in the Chinese market.

Users would ask a question, and receive a WeChat message in response, including links to relevant sites. Later, Chumen Wenwen launched a standalone app for Android and tapping its Google connections, Wenwen also became the only Chinese voice command platform for Google Glass.

Having established itself as the dominant force in the China’s voice-recognition market, Mobvoi created its own platform to deliver its services. It settled on the Ticwatch in 2015. According to Wareable, a news site dedicated to wearable technology, Mobvoi raised Rmb8 million in 14 days through a crowdfunding arm.

Ticwatch’s timing was opportune: Android Wear wasn’t able to penetrate the market because it relied on Google’s services (most of which are blocked in China) and Xiaomi – which many had expected to release a smart wearable – had not yet done so. Thus Ticwatch’s only competitor was Apple, which it could easily undercut on price.

Mobvoi’s dogged pursuit of new technologies able to utilise its core voice recognition software has seen it through four rounds of fundraising, gaining backers like Sequoia Capital. During its latest fundraising this month – which garnered $180 million and valued the company at about $1 billion, reckons the Financial Times – Volkswagen joined the investor ranks.

Technode reports that Volkswagen’s investment marks an agreement between the two companies to establish a 50-50 joint venture. Mobvoi will focus on research and development, whilst Volkswagen will handle marketing, sales and brand management.

In a statement, Volkswagen China CEO Jochem Heizmann said, “We are impressed by Mobvoi’s innovative approach to AI technologies, and we are pleased to form this joint venture to explore the next generation of smart mobility.” Li appears confident of a massive new market. “All cars will soon be digitalised, they will become like mobile computers,” he says. “We want to enable voice interaction and personalised services and accelerate [the development of] driverless cars.”

On a related note Heizmann also said that China’s central government has been making reassuring noises this month that foreign firms like VW will not be forced to share their proprietary electric vehicle technologies with local JV partners (in its case SAIC and First Auto).

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