Alibaba inks Ford partnership to identify opportunities in automotive

The three-year agreement will see both companies explore "areas of cooperation" that can "reshape" China's automotive industry, starting with new retail offerings in the automotive ownership cycle.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Alibaba Group has inked an agreement with Ford Motor Company to identify new opportunities in the automotive industry, tapping the Chinese tech giant's cloud and online retail technologies.

Spanning the three years, the partnership would explore areas in which the two companies could collaborate to introduce new services in the automotive industry in China, as well as other global markets.

Ford would work with Alibaba's four business units encompassing the latter's operating system AliOS, Alibaba Cloud, digital marketing system Alimama, and retail platform Tmall, the companies said in a statement Thursday. Both teams would jointly work on various focus areas, including mobility services, connectivity, artificial intelligence (AI), and digital marketing.

For a start, the two partners would explore a pilot study to assess new retail opportunities across the automotive ownership cycle, from pre-sales and test drives to financial leasing options. The aim was to "redefine" distribution strategies, cloud connectivity, online retail marketing as well as infotainment services.

Ford President and CEO Jim Hackett said: "China is one of the world's largest and most dynamic digital markets, thriving on innovation with customers' online and offline experiences converging rapidly. Collaborating with leading technology players builds on our vision for smart vehicles in a smart world to reimagine and revolutionise consumers' mobility experiences."

Developed to support mobile, industry, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, Alibaba's AliOS today is installed in more than 400,000 web-connected cars in China. The company in 2016 had inked a partnership with Chinese automaker SAIC Motor to develop the internet-enabled vehicles.

Alibaba added that it currently was working with more than 50 brands on applications across different domains, including automomotive OS, intelligent speech recognition, driverless-car technology, high-precision mapping, auto financing, and in-vehicle payment systems.

Alibaba brings voice commands to train stations

In a separate announcement, Alibaba said it was working with Shanghai Shentong Metro Group to implement far-field voice command capabilities in ticketing kiosks at the Chinese city's metro stations. It also planned to deploy various technologies to better optimise the management of passenger traffic and ease commute.

The initiative would enable passengers use their voice to tell kiosks at metro stations their destination and have the machines recommend the best route. They then could pay for their tickets with Alibaba's mobile wallet, Alipay.

For instance, a passenger could tell the machine "I want to go to Pearl Tower" and be given the closest subway stop to that destination. The ticketing system also would automatically activate when the passenger was within proximity of it.

Based on technology built by the Chinese vendor's subsidiary, Institute of Data and Science Technology (iDST), the far-field voice recognition system was touted to reduce noise interference in crowded public settings such as metro stations to accurately interpret instructions.

iDST's director of intelligent speech recognition, Yan Zhijie, explained that it was able to achieve this by integrating signal processing and computer vision technologies, and identify sound sources. He said passengers would not have to use any special words to activate the kiosk, "even from two meters away".

The partnership also would enable Shanghai Metro to analyse passenger traffic data to predict surges, so it could deploy crowd control measures or emergency scheduling to cope with the traffic increase.

In addition, in future, passengers would be able to gain entry more quickly through facial recognition devices installed at subway gates.

Starting early-2018, though, they could tap Alipay as a payment option and swipe their smartphone at subway gates to pay for entry, even without internet connection.

Shanghai Metro currently accounts for almost 53 percent of all public transportation in the Chinese city, which is home to 24 million. The subway network encompasses 4,000 trains serving 17 lines and 367 stations.

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