Photographer: VCG via Getty Images Trump Threats Push China’s Top SUV Maker to Review Mexico Plant
NIO, a well-funded Shanghai-based automotive startup with operations in Silicon Valley and Europe, intends to sell its first autonomous electric car in the U.S. by 2020. The young company faces lots of competition in a global race to create game-changing 21st-century vehicles.
Padmasree Warrior, NIO’s U.S. CEO, showed off the Eve, a sleek, wagon-style model in a presentation webcast from SXSW in Austin, Texas. Despite a string of high-production value videos that underscored NIO’s commitment to zero-pollution, stylish, AI-enabled cars, few specifics about Eve – which bears a resemblance to fellow startup Faraday Future’s FF 91 electric crossover – were revealed during the press conference.
Electric range wasn’t discussed, though a technical spec sheet provided by the company indicates a target driving range of about 600 miles per charge. In terms of autonomous driving capability, Eve will be designed as a “Level 4” vehicle. That designation, recently adopted by the U.S. Transportation Department, describes a vehicle able to operate autonomously under most, though not all, driving conditions.
“The car will be completely capable of driving itself in constrained environments. Initially we’re targeting solving the problem of commute that all of us face around the world,” said Warrior, who also sits on Microsoft’s board and was previously chief technology officer for Cisco.
As for how much it will cost, “directionally we’re targeting the premium market for this vehicle,” she said, without elaborating. That suggests a base price of no less than $40,000 when Eve, or something like it, arrives.
While NIO is borrowing aspects of Tesla’s playbook, it will also have to compete with California startups Faraday Future and Lucid, and a range of ever more sophisticated vehicles coming from Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes, GM, Ford, Volvo and every other major automaker.
Initially known as NextEV until late last year, NIO was founded by William Li to be what he calls a “true internet-era” automaker, creating vehicles that are more like smartphones than conventional internal combustion machines. Li previously founded Bitauto, a Chinese car-buying and marketing website that’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange. He told Forbes last year that his goal is to raise $1 billion for NIO. Crunchbase estimates that NextEV raised $500 million from backers including Chinese internet service provider Tencent, Singapore-based Temasek Holdings, Menlo Park-based VC Sequoia Capital and computer maker Lenovo.
Rather than pouring vast amounts of money into building its own factory at this point, Li’s initial plan is to arrange contract production of vehicles that NIO designs and engineers.
Warrior told Forbes that that remains a possibility though the company will also consider setting up its own assembly operation. Before an Eve-type NIO car comes to the U.S., the company plans to start selling another model in China next year, Warrior said, without elaborating.
NIO opened a large U.S. base in San Jose last year to lead its software development efforts and attract the experts in artificial intelligence it needs to make its autonomous system work.
The concept version of Eve shown in Austin seats five and has a forward-sliding door, with no standard A and B pillars to allow for wide-open entrance to the vehicle’s cabin. The interior has a table for work or other activities that folds away when not needed. There’s also has an onboard digital assistant named NOMI to satisfy occupants’ requests. There will also be a retractable steering wheel and control pedals, allowing owners to drive themselves should they so choose, Warrior said.
In November, NIO unveiled the EP9, a $1.2 million limited production all-electric supercar, at an event in London. The company claims that vehicle is both the world’s fastest EV and fastest autonomous car.
“Motorola and Nokia were the leaders in the market and had been building phones at that point for 75 or 80 years. Everybody thought ‘what does a Silicon Valley company no about building phones?,” she said. “So Apple, when it made the iPhone didn’t just build a better phone, it created a smartphone that allowed you to connect to the internet. They changed the ‘chassis.'”Aside from noting that NIO has technology coming from Mobileye and Nvidia, Warrior didn’t elaborate on specific technical features, stressing that Eve embodies the company’s vision for its vehicles. As for the challenge an outsider firm like NIO faces in conquering the auto business, Warrior sees parallels to how tech firms including Apple and Google moved into the phone business.
Warrior and Li want to replicate that revolution, despite odds that look even more daunting.