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Is this Singaporean the most important CEO in the global car industry?

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Soh Wei Ming heads Mobility Asia, a Volkswagen startup that could steer its parent into the future.

Singapore

IN a gig economy where nobody has any reason to own a car, what will car companies sell?

One mobility technology company, Mobility Asia, aims to help the world's biggest carmaker answer that question.

Founded in 2018, Mobility Asia is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Volkswagen Group, the conglomerate that owns numerous automobile brands including Audi, Bugatti, Porsche, Seat, Skoda and Volkswagen, and is the world's biggest carmaker by volume.

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Mobility Asia is the brainchild of Soh Weiming, a board member and its current chief executive.

A Singaporean based in Beijing, China, the automobile industry veteran is also a member of the management board and executive vice president for Volkswagen Group China. That could make him the single highest ranking Singaporean in the global car industry.

Mr Soh was back home to deliver a talk on changing mobility at the innovation and technology summit Innovfest Unbound, on June 27.

"The idea for Mobility Asia came about in 2013, when we thought about what comes next for automobiles. Obviously, we now know it's electric and electrified vehicles. It's not just that, but everything else which follows," Mr Soh told The Business Times.

"Everything else" is the wide-ranging spectrum of technology that is Mobility Asia's business. That includes electrified cars, connectivity, infrastructure and users, a service ecosystem (charging grid, ride-sharing, media content), technology products (voice control, Artificial Intelligence), and autonomous vehicles.

It also includes data analytics, the backbone of any service-based, Internet-connected business.

In terms of practical consumer benefits, what Mobility Asia is working on could end up being anything from an AI-assisted navigation or commute-planning system, to advanced voice recognition inside a vehicle.

Such a wide range requires a large workforce. Although Mobility Asia's headcount is around 300 people, it cooperates with other companies in various joint ventures, and taps their expertise as well. Working that way means the number of workers (primarily software engineers) the startup has access to is in the thousands, says Mr Soh.

It's a complete U-turn from the conventions of automobile manufacture, which is an asset-heavy business. But it reflects how the car business is evolving from a product-focused approach to a service-based one.

"The traditional role of a carmaker simply was to sell cars, but in the future, we will have to become a mobility provider. And if you don't know how to run those things, you have no chance," says Mr Soh.

Does that mean users could see Volkswagen-branded mobility apps on their smartphones soon? Not quite, as Mobility Asia is primarily a business-to-business company for now, and its clients include cities (it's working with the government of the Hefei Smart City in the Anhui province of China) and various Volkswagen Group brands.

But it's still early days for Mobility Asia, and although the company is currently focused on China, if it's successful there, the global reach of Volkswagen Group will provide an excellent springboard.

"Our products are currently developed for China, but the Chinese cities are similar to Asia," Mr Soh says. "If it works in China, then it could work for the rest of Asia."