TikTok is integrating itself into the luxury car market, even as the Chinese-owned video app company faces mounting criticism from U.S. officials over national security concerns.
While unveiling the next version of its E-class sedan on Wednesday, Mercedes-Benz announced that upcoming models will allow drivers to directly download third-party apps to the center display, and even film themselves and participate in video meetings, though only when the car is in park. Passengers will also have a screen through which they can access mobile apps, even when the car is in motion, but the German car manufacturer says that screen will be shielded from the driver when the vehicle moves.
TikTok, Zoom and the game “Angry Birds” are among the apps available for download in an app store hosted by Mercedes, which said it sold nearly 330,000 vehicles in the United States in 2021, including nearly 21,000 E-Class sedans.
“As we aim to expand that experience for our users, we’re excited to partner with Mercedes-Benz to introduce immersive in-car entertainment, which will give our community more opportunities to enjoy the content they love,” said David Saidden, director of distribution business development at TikTok.
The partnership comes as state and federal lawmakers grow increasingly hawkish about cracking down on the app’s use, arguing that the Chinese-owned company poses national security threats, including through foreign access to users’ data and the ability to spread propaganda. In December, Congress approved a ban of the app on federal government devices, and around two dozen states have made similar moves. In response, TikTok has stepped up a charm offensive in Washington, attempting to assuage lawmakers’ unease.
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James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the Mercedes deal represents a push to outlast lawmakers’ efforts to crack down on the app, especially as other countries have not expressed the same level of alarm.
“TikTok isn’t waiting with bated breath to see what the U.S. does,” he said, adding that the company is “gambling on being so successful that the U.S. isn’t going to be able to take action against them.”
It’s unclear if the deal will put more political pressure on Mercedes and other companies that cut deals with the video app company. In a statement to The Washington Post, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who introduced the bill to ban TikTok on government phones, said companies “should stop embracing TikTok.”
“The app should be banned in the United States,” Hawley said, arguing that the app is controlled by the Chinese government and is therefore a “threat to the privacy of all American users.”
TikTok has pushed back on the narrative, even opening “transparency centers” meant to counter public officials’ concerns. In a statement to The Post, TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter said that the Chinese government had “neither direct nor indirect control” of the video app or its parent, ByteDance.
“There is no truth to Sen. Hawley’s claim,” she said in an email.
The company’s foray into cars might also signal TikTok’s desire to reach older generations, Lewis said. The industry analyst eMarketer forecast that TikTok’s over-65 audience will grow in 2022, and AARP has issued a how-to guide for the app.
“They wouldn’t mind getting a new demographic,” he said. “They probably like the prestige of having a deal with Mercedes.”