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Chinese startup races to create AI virtual assistant for cars

Inside the iFlytek headquarters in Hefei, Anhui province, an employee asked a car in the showroom: “Is there a coffee shop near here?”.

“There are 15 cafes around you,” answered iFlytek’s virtual assistant. “Which of these places would you like to visit?”

iFlytek is one of the startups in China that is focusing heavily on the virtual assistant system WHO on the car. It aims to grow by 30% year-on-year, take half of the market share in this segment in the country this year, and grow revenue to 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) by 2025.

An iFlytek AI-powered virtual assistant system.  Photo: Shin Watanbe

An iFlytek AI-powered virtual assistant system. Photo: Shin Watanbe

China is currently the largest car market in the world, while AI virtual assistants for cars are relatively new. This field is currently a race between iFlytek of China and Cerence from the US.

Most AI virtual assistants for cars currently mainly control the navigation system, play music and turn on the air conditioner by voice. However, companies are increasingly integrating more features to stay ahead of the self-driving car trend, like self-stopping and parking with just a command.

“New models allow the user to control the car even when not in it. This is very useful, especially when they want to get out of a tight parking lot,” said a salesman at an umbrella dealership. Auto Changan in Dalian shared when it came to iFlytek’s technology.

Jiang Tao, senior vice president of iFlytek, in a meeting with investors earlier this month said about 7 million vehicles integrated with the company’s AI system in 2021 and is estimated to reach 9 million vehicles this year. However, the company’s expansion ambitions abroad may be difficult, because it is on the US embargo list.

Meanwhile, Cerence, which controls more than half of the global automotive virtual assistant market, is currently partnered with 65 major automakers, such as BMW, Ford Motor and Toyota Motor. The company has been active in China in recent years, quickly capturing 40% of the market share in 2020 thanks to the cooperation with major electric vehicle manufacturers in China, including many startups.

According to observers, by the end of 2022, the AI-based virtual assistant in China may still be just a race between iFlytek and Cerence. But within the next few years, the two will no longer hold the current position as a series of other companies jump into the competition.

Data from research firm Deloitte shows that the voice recognition market in China, which includes education, healthcare and finance, will grow from 28.5 billion yuan ($4.5 billion) in 2018. in 2021 to 145.2 billion yuan (US$23 billion) in 2030. The automotive segment accounts for only 10% in 2021, but is expected to grow many times in the future.

Nhu Phuc (according to Nikkei Asia)

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