Ford Motor Co wants Tencent Holdings Ltd to tailor its popular chatting app for the firm's cars in China, as automakers in the world's largest market vie for drivers that care about high-tech features as much as engine size.
Rivals including Daimler and Nissan Motor Co Ltd are also looking at ways to give drivers safe, hands-free access to mobile apps in China, home to the world's largest number of smartphone users. WeChat is China's most prevalent chatting app, with about half a billion active monthly users.
"There's a demand from our customers," David Huang, a senior engineer who heads Ford's Asia Pacific connected services unit, told Reuters. "People want to stay connected, stay informed and stay entertained all the time, even when they're driving."
Ford is in talks with Tencent over the business aspects of putting the app in its cars, Huang said. Tencent declined to comment.
Cars are becoming a key battleground for technology industry giants, including Google Inc and Apple Inc, as they seek to develop a market where drivers will be online while on the road. China could be on the front line of that battle as predominantly first-time car buyers in the country are also early adopters who understand more about technology than engine specifications.
Huang said Ford envisages drivers syncing their phone to the car's software system and controlling specific WeChat functions, chosen by Tencent and then certified by Ford as safe, through voice commands or limited use of buttons.
Making WeChat and other apps convenient, safe and legal to use while driving could help automakers gain market share in China, especially as auto sales growth eases in a slowing economy. Yale Zhang, managing director of Shanghai-based consultancy Automotive Foresight, said connectivity was a key deciding factor for Chinese customers buying a car.
"Those kind of things are the fundamental things people will consider," he added.
Many Chinese use WeChat's free voice messaging feature instead of phone calls, holding up their smartphones like a walkie-talkie as they speak, tap and listen to replies.
They often do that while they are driving, breaking a 2004 traffic law that bans any behaviour that hinders safe driving.
"In a car, if you had software that can sync with your WeChat, that would be very useful," said Mao Yanan, a Beijing resident who admits to holding her phone to use the app while driving.
Other automakers are also eyeing apps and online services.
In August, General Motors Co and Tencent launched a platform for GM owners to use WeChat to find a nearby dealership or send the location of their car to a friend.
Nissan wants the app in its cars at some point, a spokeswoman said. Daimler, which owns the Mercedes-Benz brand popular in China, is also researching how to include apps and services from Tencent and rivals Baidu Inc and Alibaba Group Holding in its cars, the company's China head Hubertus Troska said.
"The race is on, very clearly," Troska told reporters in Beijing last week.