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Is WeChat Ready for Its Automotive Closeup?

by Roger Lanctot | 9月 14, 2015

A year ago in China the conventional wisdom was that social networking app WeChat was coming to car dashboards. It was only a matter of time and a process of determining which car maker would be first to market.

A year later and WeChat is nowhere to be found in the dashboards of cars in China leaving industry observers scratching their heads. Is it possible that Tencent’s WeChat team isn’t interested in automotive integration? Are car makers – hell-bent on gaining a digital advantage – unable to cobble together their own solutions?

Answers to these questions may come today when Tencent holds its Tencent Automotive Service Showcase in Beijing. The issue is an important one as WeChat is the single most popular app in China and has insinuated its multimodal messaging into personal and professional communications impacting half a billion users in 200 countries.

WeChat has become so pervasive it is replacing traditional office email for some professional users in China and the WeChat app accessed on the Apple Smartwatch has given birth to the killer app that might drive the adoption of that device in China and elsewhere. The ability to quickly access and send voice messages from a wrist-mounted device it catching on.

But unlike Facebook and Twitter – both of which saw rapid integration by car makers in Europe and the U.S. – WeChat has treated the auto industry with a degree of nonchalance. This is not to say that Tencent isn’t strategically interested in the auto industry.

WeChat is probably the most frequently used means of paying for DiDi, the leading ridesharing service in China, also run by Tencent. Tencent also launched the i-Car Life Platform with PICC and Shell in 2014 and i-Maintenance product for unlimited free maintenance to PICC customers.

Tencent has also reportedly invested in electric vehicle startups and signed an agreement with Foxconn and Harmony earlier this year to create a domestic “intelligent EV” brand. At the same time, Tencent has shut down its Lubao OBDII box targeted at the usage-based insurance market – an indication that Tencent is still learning some hard lessons in the automotive space.

The prospect of a WeChat integration is top of mind in the wake of Baidu’s CarLife smartphone integration launch along with Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto. The Android Auto launch is especially relevant given the emergence of Google Now! In the car, bringing the user’s so-called “social graph” – appointments, email, social network – into the car in the form of notifications.

The Apple Smartwatch connection and potential car integration are particularly noteworthy given the proximity of the wrist-mounted mobile device to the steering wheel and the driver’s mouth for sending and receiving messages. A WeChat integration for ad hoc messaging would be comparable to BMW’s text and email reading in appropriately equipped 7 Series sedans.

It is hard to imagine what is scarier, the current high level of usage of WeChat in moving vehicles on handheld phones or a connected smartphone WeChat experience using the existing vehicle interfaces. Either way, the nature of the distraction is so pervasive and potentially catastrophic as to give Tencent and auto makers pause before proceeding.

But there is no question what would happen if WeChat were to make an automotive API available. Car makers would leap at the chance to implement the application and maybe take advantage of its e-commerce elements as well.

Given the fact that Tencent has so far ignored the only existing WeChat integration currently available – via WeDrive 2.0 from NavInfo – it is not likely that WeChat will make the leap from smartwatch and smartphone to dashboard. But there isn’t a single car maker in China that isn’t interested in giving it a try when it becomes available.

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