Map Maker Aims to Be Silicon Valley Conduit to China Car Market

(Bloomberg) -- Rebuffed by the U.S. in an attempted foray abroad, Chinese mapping provider NavInfo Co. now aims to be a partner for U.S. tech companies seeking access to China’s promising autonomous vehicle market.

The Beijing-based company backed by Tencent Holdings Ltd. has established a small team in Silicon Valley, reaching out to technology companies such as Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Cheng Peng, chief executive officer of NavInfo Co., said in an interview April 23. The company is also considering investments in startups there so it can acquire technologies to use back in China, Cheng said.

Map Maker Aims to Be Silicon Valley Conduit to China Car Market

“We are there to offer a bridgehead to the companies for them to do business in China,” Cheng said. “Our partnership will face the China market, and we will play to our strength in the local market.”

High-resolution mapping is a crucial technology used by autonomous vehicles to safely follow designated routes and avoid congestion in a rapidly evolving transportation market. China’s stated aspiration to deploy 30 million autonomous vehicles within a decade is seeding a massive demand for mapping services. At the same time, the government’s strict license system restricting foreign companies from mapping in the country also has created a handful of domestic leaders.

NavInfo is among the 14 Chinese companies that have received the government’s approval to collect data for high-resolution mapping, with a unit of China’s leading car-hailing operator Didi Chuxing the latest to make the list.

HERE Technologies, an Amsterdam-headquartered digital-mapping service provider that counts BMW, Daimler, Audi and Intel among its investors, formed a joint venture with NavInfo in May to apply NavInfo’s mapping data to global customers. But NavInfo’s attempt to acquire a 10 percent stake in HERE last year never won approval from U.S. regulators, who reviewed the case because the Dutch company has an operation in Chicago.

“A lot of governments are just too sensitive about the background of our company,” said Cheng, referring to the unsuccessful HERE stake purchase. “People still have biases toward Chinese companies.”

Meanwhile, NavInfo is proceeding with global expansion efforts elsewhere. In 2011, it acquired Dutch compilation company Mapscape, which contributes a significant part of the profits of Shenzhen-listed NavInfo, said Cheng, without being more specific. NavInfo has also branched out to Southeast Asia and is looking for new opportunities, Cheng added.

Cheng said NavInfo isn’t aiming to implement its technology in the U.S. for now, due to what he called the “adverse market environment there.”

“Related to our business, there are challenges in globalization,” said Cheng. “You see this trading war, the legal issue with ZTE. There is a bunch of challenges related to this.”

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