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Europe’s best-selling Chinese EV maker has a surprising name

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Europe’s best-selling Chinese EV maker has a surprising name


This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

These days, few Chinese tech sectors have received more fame and attention than electric vehicles. With domestic EV adoption rising aggressively every year, Chinese EV companies are the stars of auto shows from Shanghai to Munich, and they are drawing up big plans to replicate their success far from home. (Back in February, I wrote about how Chinese EVs came to dominate.)

But these global ambitions hit a roadblock this month when European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen made a high-profile announcement launching an investigation into whether Chinese-made EVs benefit from excessive government subsidies. 

As I wrote in a story published yesterday, the coming investigation will look at whether the Chinese government has given its automakers too many subsidies and therefore conferred an unfair advantage on the world stage. If the inquiry finds evidence for this claim, which experts told me is very likely, it could result in increased import duties for Chinese-made EVs that would likely make them less competitive in European markets. 

“In my opinion, this announcement is just the first of several measures that Europe will consider taking in order to protect its local industry,” says Felipe Muñoz, a senior analyst at the London-based auto-industry consultancy JATO Dynamics. 

The investigation comes at a time when European automakers are feeling increasingly threatened by Chinese brands, which are releasing competitive models at least $10,000 cheaper than their European rivals. A lot of the Chinese brands that are stirring up concern are well-known names in China, like the established giant BYD and the promising startup Nio. 

But there’s one name you might not expect.

“The one who’s really changing the game is not Nio. It’s not BYD,” says Muñoz. “The big thing, which accounts for around 80% of the Chinese brands’ sales in Europe, is MG.” 

Er, what’s MG? To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of that brand before this conversation, let alone had any sense of how successful it has been.

I’ve since learned MG was created in the UK in the 1920s, getting its name from an Oxford retail center called Morris Garages. It remained a luxury British sports car brand for more than 80 years until its owner went bankrupt in 2005. It was then acquired by a smaller Chinese company called Nanjing Auto and later by SAIC Motor, China’s largest auto company. Since then, all MG cars have been designed and manufactured in China. It produces both gas cars and electric vehicles but plans to go all electric by 2027. 

I suspect I have never paid attention to the name because, as a Chinese brand, MG is doing pretty poorly in its domestic market, even though all of its cars are made in the country and there’s ample market demand. In China, its annual sales in 2022 were less than what BYD can sell in a month. 

But in reporting this story, I learned that MG has had the best-selling Chinese EV model in Europe for months; its growth trend is topped only by Tesla’s.

The affordable options MG offers have become a threat to many mass-market vehicle brands in Europe. “MG is changing the EV game with the MG4 and MG ZS EV,” Muñoz says, referring to a small family car model and an SUV that MG released last year, “because those cars are really competitive—especially the MG4, which is already outselling cars like the Volkswagen ID3.” (For comparison, the price of an MG4 starts at €28,590 in Germany, while the comparable Volkswagen ID3 starts at €39,995.)

To be clear, what has elevated the MG4 above other Chinese EV models is not its quality or affordability, which Chinese companies already have a good grasp of. The key is in the branding. 

“The biggest drawback of Chinese cars is that they have very low brand recognition [in Europe]. They can only rely on low prices,” says Zhang Xiang, a Chinese auto-industry analyst. Despite being household names in China, brands like BYD and Nio are seldom ones that an ordinary European car buyer would be familiar with.

And the flip side of my not knowing MG is a Chinese brand is that it is still perceived by many Western consumers as a British luxury brand, even though it’s been fully Chinese for more than a decade. “Very old-school, history—classic cars” is what came to the mind of my British colleague when asked about his perception of MG. And nope, he didn’t know it had become a Chinese company. MG has therefore avoided the stereotype that all Chinese-made products are low quality.

Well, I can’t really say that is the solution for Chinese brands trying to break into the European market. It’s not like everyone can just acquire a European brand in bankruptcy to pull off an image overhaul. 

But the success of MG is a reminder to other Chinese companies that mastering the technology and manufacturing of a product is only the first step to success abroad; changing the overall perception of Chinese-made cars is a harder job. Muñoz says Chinese brands need to look to the Korean car makers of the ’90s or Japanese car makers of the ’70s for lessons on building trust and recognition in a new market. 

Obviously, that took a while for them. I think this is a reality check for both Chinese companies and the observers cheering them on. It’s a triumph for them to make a good EV product that sells well in China, but that doesn’t automatically translate to success with a wholly different set of consumers. 

And this challenge could grow with the new investigation and corresponding political discussions. “The long-term effect is that … [the Chinese brands] could eventually get more negative perception among the consumers because they are becoming a ‘problem’ for Europe,” says Muñoz. Building trust among consumers while the general political narrative is working against you? Good luck with that.

Would you consider buying a Chinese-made electric vehicle if it was available where you live? Why? Let me know by writing to zeyi@technologyreview.com.

Catch up with China

1. If you searched on Google last week for “tank man,” the famous 1989 Tiananmen Square protester, the first result was an AI-generated selfie. (404 Media)

2. At the opening ceremony of the Asian Games 2023, held in Hangzhou, real fireworks were completely replaced by those generated by augmented reality. (Associated Press)

3. TikTok is setting up an e-commerce hub in Seattle as it looks to compete directly with Amazon on US soil. (The Information $)

4. Ultra-rich Chinese Gen Z heirs who were educated in the West are increasingly returning to China and betting on the potential of their home country. (Bloomberg $)

5. One leading Chinese university just scrapped the mandatory English test that all students needed to pass to graduate. It signals the declining importance of the language in China. (South China Morning Post $)

6. Only two pages of Walter Isaacson’s 600-page Elon Musk biography concern his dealings with China—where over half of Tesla cars are produced. (Rest of World)

Lost in translation

Do you want to buy a smartphone as an accessory for your car? Nio, the Chinese EV startup, is betting that you do. On September 21, Nio officially launched its first smartphone, which will be closely tied to its cars’ functions. Priced between 6,499 RMB and 7,499 RMB ($890 to $1,025), it costs about the same as an iPhone 15, which puts it in the small luxury smartphone sector in China. And the company plans to release a new model every year, similar to Apple’s approach. 

Who’s the target customer? According to the Chinese publication Shijie, Nio CEO William Li says it’s Nio car owners: “If we can sell 5 million Nio cars, half of the owners buy Nio phones, and they get a new phone every three years, then it will be profitable.” The Nio phone would replace traditional car keys and control various vehicle functions remotely. Still, some consumers have questioned the need for a dedicated smartphone when a mobile app could do the same. While many Chinese EV brands have found a fervent following among their customers, Nio is about to find out whether their loyalty is strong enough to justify a $900 accessory.

One more thing

It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival again this Friday, and I’ve already stocked up on mooncakes—the decadent, unhealthy treats filled with lotus seed, red bean, and salted egg yolk, which are reserved for this holiday. But I didn’t know until this visual story in the Washington Post that mooncakes have also been used to spread political rebellion, from ancient China to Hong Kong in the 2010s. Well, I will devour the mooncakes with more respect this year.

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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