A car bearing Huawei’s logo is seen during a road test for the company’s HI smart automotive system. Photo: Handout

Riding a wave of patriotism and driven by government support, Chinese tech giant Huawei has wheeled out plans to help steer the nation’s accelerating smart car industry.

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei and senior executives including CEO Xu Zhijun have repeatedly denied that the company known for its edge in 5G tech and value-for-money smartphones would switch lanes into the auto sector.

But Huawei continues to drop hints it will diversify away from its Western sanctions-hit telecom business and towards futuristic smart cars. 

On June 2, Huawei released the latest version of its indigenous Harmony operating system amid much fanfare, setting its sights beyond smartphones and other personal gadgets to blur the boundaries between tech and other products.

The Harmony operating system, a rival to Android, was announced this week after beta testing. Credit: Handout.

Huawei Consumer Products CEO Yu Chengdong rhapsodized at the event about a Harmony-driven ecosystem that will connect cars to other smart devices. Analysts said afterwards the new operating system signals Huawei is preparing to put its auto ambitions into a new high gear. 

The Southern Daily, the official mouthpiece of Huawei’s home province of Guangdong, claimed in a report in April that the company already had the capacity to build cars after having spent years in related research and development.

The paper said Ren’s assurance that Huawei did not intend to compete against existing automakers should be taken with a pinch of salt, given that Huawei made similar guarantees almost ten years ago to traditional phone makers yet that not long after the company still started to dial up its own smartphone lines. 

When Huawei set up a big center-stage booth at 2019’s Shanghai Auto Expo and showcased a few conceptual auto prototypes, Xu revealed in interviews that Huawei had since 2012 a dedicated team working on self-driving autos, battery technologies, cloud computing and the Internet of Things. 

Analysts say Huawei’s deep pool of talent and trove of intellectual property patents can all be tapped and synergized to seek new growth areas and rejig its product portfolio.

Records on the National Intellectual Property Administration’s website show that as of March Huawei had filed more than 350 patents ranging from vehicular laser radar, electric car powertrain, mobile data centers, in-car augmented reality heads-up displays and intelligent dashboards and cabinets. 

A SERES electric car is seen inside a Huawei store in Shanghai. Photo: Huawei Press Release

Huawei’s investment in automaker SERES has fueled further talk about it making a determined and formidable entry into the already crowded and highly competitive car market.

In April, Huawei announced that its nationwide stores would soon start showcasing SERES’ e-cars and accepting purchase orders. It is also speculated it may buy up the latter’s shares and make it a wholly-owned car subsidiary.

SERES was a nondescript electric car manufacturer flying under the news radar until receiving Huawei’s backing at this year’s Shanghai Auto Expo, where it made its maiden appearance. 

Moving in parallel with its own R&D and investment programs is Huawei’s drive to reel in more partners.

Its growing list of clients includes state-owned Guangzhou Automobile, Beijing Automobile, the First Automobile Works, Changan Auto, BYD and the Chinese subsidiary of Peugeot Citroen, all of which either currently buy ICT software and solutions from Huawei or may launch new sedans co-developed with it to use the Harmony OS. 

Still, auto industry watchers are buzzing with speculation that Huawei will soon announce the launch of its first branded car. Huawei debuted its HiCar sub-brand of intelligent automotive solutions in 2020 with launch partners and potential OEM contractors like BYD, Changan, Guangzhou Automobile and Beijing Automobile. 

Huawei launched its smart automotive solution with several Chinese carmakers in 2020. Picture: Huawei Press Release

Wang Jun, president of Huawei Smart Car Solutions, said last year that in the future vehicles could be “defined by software” with new functions continually rolled out.

The company’s solutions include a highly automated driving system based on a Level 4 autonomous driving architecture of artificial intelligence simulation, optimization algorithms, and legions of sensors and cameras fitted throughout a car.

Huawei said HiCar, combined with the power of Harmony, would provide solutions for complete self-driving in the future.

Other features that may woo tech-savvy drivers include an AR-HUD set that can turn a windshield into a 70-inch high-definition large screen, as seen in a joint demonstration by Huawei and its partners.  

Guangdong’s cadres are reportedly brokering more deals between Huawei and leading carmakers like BYD and Guangzhou Automobile that are also based in the province. 

The Southern Daily also speculated that with HiCar, Harmony and its growing stock of auto-related tech solutions, Huawei’s ultimate ambition may be to rival Bosch, a German multinational engineering and tech company that commands a strong hold on the global auto sector as a Tier 1 mobility hardware and software solutions supplier. 

A Bosch IoT Shuttle built for China’s sharing economy. Photo: AFP

The German giant is behind some of the leading innovations in electric and smart cars, with its edge in powertrain peripherals and electrification tools, steering, safety, driver-assistance and automated driving systems, electrical and electronic architectures as well as vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. 

Huawei did not respond to Asia Times’ inquiries about whether making and selling cars and supplying related solutions is in the company’s future. 

Huawei’s founder Ren once told state broadcaster CCTV that there were too many new fronts in which Huawei could invest and his company must have a cerebral strategy to select the markets in which it may excel. But he said it behooved him to help Chinese companies like automakers to further shed their dependence on imports and foreign tech.

Ren hinted in the same interview that with Huawei’s ill-treatment by the West still rankling in the minds of many Chinese officials and customers, Huawei’s future car business may derive extra momentum from people’s patriotism and the government’s self-reliance push. 

Read more: