Tencent venture poaches Google talent as Chinese tech firms pile into autos

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Dancers perform underneath the logo of Tencent at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing May 6, 2014.   REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo
Dancers perform underneath the logo of Tencent at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing May 6, 2014.

Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

An automaker launched last year by firms including tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd has poached autonomous driving personnel from Google and Daimler AG, marking China’s latest high-profile hires in the race to make self-driving cars.

Tech firms are encroaching on the auto sector as cars become increasingly reliant on digital technology, with Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and internet search provider Baidu Inc funding automotive ventures.

A relaxation of restrictions on non-automakers producing electric cars in China has also encouraged more entrants. Video streamer cum automaker Le Holdings Co, or LeEco, unveiled an electric self-driving concept car ahead of the Beijing motor show, which ends on Wednesday.

Tencent, the Chinese maker of popular chat app WeChat, established Future Mobility to make electrified self-driving cars with Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd – also known as Foxconn – and car dealer China Harmony New Energy Auto Holding Ltd.

“If you’re measuring these firms (Future Mobility, LeEco and others) as automotive companies, the risks are very high and it’s a very long shot for any to make it,” said Bill Russo, managing director at consultancy Gao Feng Advisory Co. “Even Tesla has taken 10 years to earn respect.”

Future Mobility has hired lead designer Wolfram Luchner from Alphabet Inc’s self-driving car project, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters, declining to be identified ahead of an official announcement.

From Daimler, the venture has hired Mercedes-Benz North America autonomous driving research and development director Luca Delgrossi, the person said.

When contacted by Reuters, Future Mobility Chief Operating Officer Daniel Kirchert confirmed the appointments.

The automaker aims to produce luxury cars in China for sale at home, in Europe and the United States, Kirchert said, declining to specify when production would start.

“The auto sector has three different tipping points at the same time: electric powertrain with the connected car and autonomous drive,” he said.

Future Mobility will be able to adapt more quickly to these changes than traditional automakers because it is more difficult for larger manufacturers to enact major change, he said.

Kirchert also confirmed other high-profile recruits from Tesla Motors Inc and BMW AG, as reported by Reuters, Bloomberg and China Daily.

Those recruits include Carsten Breitfeld who will become Future Mobility’s chief executive once released from BMW, where he was project manager for the i8 plug-in hybrid sports car.

Kirchert himself was China head of Nissan Motor Co Ltd’s luxury Infiniti brand prior to officially joining Future Mobility last week.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Christopher Cushing)