By Tim Kelly and Shinji Kitamura
TOKYO (Reuters) -Sony Group will likely add new technology partners to its electric vehicle (EV) project to help it forge a mobility business to transform cars from transportation machines to entertainment spaces, a Sony executive told Reuters.
An ongoing shift to electric cars, which are easier to build than those with internal combustion engines, is allowing new entrants into vehicle manufacturing. At the same time, autonomous driving and 5G connectivity is expected remold the auto industry by turning cars into mobile platforms for information and entertainment services.
"We see the risk of ignoring EVs as greater than the challenge they pose," Izumi Kawanishi, the senior general manager who will manage a new Sony Mobility business, said in an interview. The coming transformation of cars was in some ways similar to how information technology turned phones into smartphones, he added.
Announcing the creation of that new mobility unit at the CES technology tech fair in Las Vegas this month, Sony Chief Executive Kenichiro Yoshida suggested for the first time that the creator of PlayStation games consoles will try to turn an EV development project started two years ago into a money-making venture.
"We understand that speed is important in terms of making a decision," said Kawanishi, who joined the Japanese consumer electronics company as a software engineer in 1986 and heads the AI Robotics unit making Sony's Aibo robot pet.
Kawanishi declined to say whether a final decision on whether to go ahead would come this year.
So far, Sony has built two EV "Vision" prototypes with a factory in Austria owned by Canadian auto parts maker Magna International, which also makes cars for firms including BMW, Mercedes Benz and Toyota Motor Corp .
Other members of its Europe-based project include German auto parts maker Bosch, French automotive technology company Valeo SE and Hungarian autonomous vehicle start-up AImotive.
To bring an EV to market, Sony would likely have to invest heavily in plant and equipment. Tesla Inc, which delivered its first electric vehicle in 2008, has spent billions of dollars to make its business viable.
Sony will also have to take on traditional carmakers too, such as Toyota, General Motors Co and Volkswagen AG, which are spending tens of billions of dollars to beat the EV newcomers.
Sony is one of a growing list of technology firms exploring automotive opportunities, including iPhone maker Apple Inc, South Korea's LG Electronics Taiwan's Foxconn, and China's Alibaba Group
Sony will pick new partners for its EV project based on the technology they can bring to the project, without regard to their nationality, Kawanishi said, when asked if Sony would partner with Chinese companies.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly and Shinji Kitamura; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)