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WeChat mascots are displayed inside Tencent office at TIT Creativity Industry Zone in Guangzhou, China May 9, 2017. Picture taken May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Tencent unveils voice-operated WeChat with Chinese carmaker Changan as battle for smart vehicles intensify

  • Changan Automobile will roll out an interactive version of WeChat on some of its models including the CS75 Plus
  • Tencent is setting up a joint venture with Changan to develop a connected car system

Tencent Holdings unveiled a voice-operated version of its popular WeChat social app for use in vehicles in partnership with Chinese carmaker Changan Automobile, as tech companies extend their fight for consumer attention to the car.

Changan Automobile will roll out an interactive version of WeChat on some of its models including the CS75 Plus, the two companies announced on Monday at the Smart China Expo in Chongqing. The function will allow drivers to give voice commands or use a button on the wheel to check unread messages, send new messages and make calls on WeChat.

The voice-operated WeChat is expected to be available to car buyers when the Changan model officially hits the market by the end of this year, according to a statement by Tencent. The Shenzhen-based company is also establishing a joint venture with Changan Automobile to develop a connected car system, which will be open to other carmakers as well, Tencent chief executive Pony Ma Huateng announced at the expo prior to the launch of voice WeChat, according to a separate statement.

Tencent first announced plans for a voice-operated WeChat more than a year ago as the company tackled safety concerns involved in turning the popular smartphone app for in-vehicle use. “We do not want our users to eye on screen and read WeChat message [when they drive]. There are potential risks if they do so,” Ma said in May last year.

Technology companies and carmakers are competing for control of the in-vehicle infotainment system and content, betting that bored drivers and occupants would be a lucrative and captive market segment as they go about their commutes. The importance of winning the attention of drivers and passengers has taken on added urgency as autonomous driving edges closer to reality.

Alibaba Group Holding announced partnerships with auto giants Audi, Renault and Honda in June on voice discovery services in cars, which will integrate Tmall Genie Auto, an artificial intelligence (AI) platform developed by Alibaba AI lab. Alibaba owns the Post.

WeChat, which has more than 1 billion active users, has been expanding its presence from the smartphone to the emerging universe of smart, connected devices as Tencent focuses on so-called industrial internet.

In January the company unveiled a virtual assistance system called WeChat italking, or Xiaowei in Chinese, which can work on devices from smart speakers to cars, and link WeChat users with Tencent’s stable of services including QQ Music. Meituan Dianping, Didi Chuxing and Mobike, three on-demand services providers that all count Tencent as a strategic investor, will also connect with Xiaowei.

For more insights into China tech, join our Facebook group, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Tencent in alliance for in-vehicle WeChat