Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba introduced its first automobile last week, the RX5 sport utility vehicle, set to be delivered to customers in August.
Alibaba in its announcement said the car will use the company’s own e-commerce platform to deliver such services as finding parking spaces, locating gas stations or making restaurant reservations. Drivers will also be able to pay for services from the car using “Alipay.”
Different drivers and passengers will be able to use their own Alibaba accounts, similar to Amazon.com accounts, for individual access to services and payment. The car will also use those accounts to recommend services such as music or destinations.
Those predictive software aspects make auto developers think Alibaba has entered the auto space with an eye toward autonomous vehicles. The YunOS software, industry analysts say, is Alibaba’s entry point to allow its cars to communicate with other vehicles and nearby businesses, making a strong step toward connected and autonomous vehicles.
The car marks Alibaba's first foray into the auto market. Google has for years been experimenting with autonomous car technology. Apple has a large presence in vehicle “infotainment,” or systems that integrate car amenities with performance. QNX, a BlackBerry subsidiary, is also a leader in the field.
And Alibaba, industry analysts say, wants a piece of that action as the auto market transitions toward self-driving cars. Data and Internet companies have quickly realized the value of real estate in vehicle platforms, especially as drivers and passengers insist on using more and more devices in the car.
“I think what Google saw and what others see is that the vehicle is the next mobile platform,” said Grant Courville, senior director of product management at QNX. “It’s going to have software and connectivity. I think automakers just a few years ago didn’t realize what they had.”
Carmakers meanwhile have been racing to engineer sophisticated software that can fit in their vehicles. Toyota in 2015 invested $1 billion in artificial intelligence research. BMW announced last week a partnership with multinational technology firms Mobileye and Intel, which specialize in driver assistance programs and operating systems.
An autonomous car must be predictive to deliver passengers successfully to their destinations and to cue up the appropriate in-car services, such as reminders to pick up milk from the grocery store or real-time vehicle diagnostics.
“It’s moving from the mobile smart phone connectivity to full-car connectivity to the internet,” said Steven Crumb, executive director of Genivi, an open-source infotainment cooperative. “Even though you’ve got Google and others working on the autonomous vehicle, the way to get the autonomous vehicle is through the connected car. That’s the stepping stone to get where we are today to fully autonomous.”