Chinas electric car sales war is being waged inside the cabin
Around lunchtime at an Xpeng showroom in Beijing last month, a man in a three-piece suit strolled inside and straight past rows of the companys sleek P7 and P5 electric sedans.
Watching on, I saw him make a beeline for a display of a model of the company's proposed flying car. "When will it be available?" he eagerly asked a member of sales staff. "I hope it's in use as soon as possible."
Other customers were focused on in-car karaoke features. Xpeng executives have recently been hyping prospects for other innovations too, like facial recognition technology and the company's cutesy, ride-on robotic pony.
As electric-vehicle sales surge in the world's top auto market - they're forecast to more than double to 3 million units this year from 1.37 million in 2020 - it seems the performance of the cars themselves is becoming far less of a concern to consumers. Most models across leading brands offer ample driving range between recharging, comparable reliability and comfort, and similar sticker prices for equivalent products.
It means electric carmakers in China are competing on what happens inside the cabin: whether navigation systems are the most advanced, how effective and useful the voice-recognition software is, which social media platforms can be integrated directly with on-board systems. Other recent selling points for top brands have been car seats that can be turned into airline-style flat beds and movie projection screens.
A car's digital technology is particularly key to lure China's consumers and a challenge for brands seeking to add market share, Christoph Grote, BMW's digital car chief, said last month.
As passenger vehicles increasingly resemble a smart device with wheels, manufacturers are also seizing on opportunities to expand into related technology segments. In September, Geely detailed its plans to begin making cell phones, and has also started manufacturing satellites from a center in Taizhou, Zhejiang province.
The lines are blurring in the opposite direction, too. Smartphone giant Xiaomi has pledged an initial investment of $10 billion over the next decade to push into the EV sector, and in August announced the acquisition of an autonomous driving technology startup. Foxconn Technology, the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer that's a key partner for Apple, recently unveiled its first EV.
Faced with those competitors in the passenger-car segment, China's EV makers are seeking to accelerate progress on innovations in transportation, including with flying cars.
Xpeng's affiliate HT Aero, which last month raised more than $500 million, is developing a lightweight vertical take-off and landing model with a foldable rotor that'll be able to drive on roads and fly at low-altitudes. Geely is among the companies, including competitor Toyota, working on an airborne product.
The Xpeng unit aims to keep the cost below $156,196 (1 million yuan) and to enter mass production by 2024. As the impatient customer in the Beijing showroom demonstrated, for some consumers, the next leap forward for China's EV giants can't come soon enough.