The NIO EP9 super duper car was in the news last week, driving itself around the Circuit of the Americas without a human driver to establish a new lap record for an autonomous car. Big deal, you say? It cost $1.2 million and the company only plans to make 6 of them. Hardly news that will impact the world of the typical driver, right? It turns out, the EP9 is just the preface to what NIO has in mind. This week at the annual South By Southwest extravaganza, it offered a glimpse at what’s next — the NIO Eve, a sultry and seductive SUV style vehicle that is definitely not your father’s minivan.
Details are few, although the company is talking about up to 600 miles of range (Take THAT, Elon!). What the Eve offers more than anything else is total connectedness for a seamless driving experience. Assuming anyone can actually afford one, the Eve is supposed to do for automobiles what the iPhone did for telephones.
“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?,” says Padmasree Warrior, NIO’s U.S. CEO. “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.'”
Warrior is a superstar of the first order in the tech world. The former chief technology officer at Cisco Systems, in addition to running things for NIO in America she also sits on the board of directors of Microsoft.
NIO expects to sell its first connected, autonomous driving car (which may or may not look like the Eve concept) in 2020. “Autonomous” is a relative term. According to Warrior, the NIO will have Level 4 self driving capability. “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,” she says.
The Eve concept seats five and has a sliding door that moves forward to reveal a spacious, inviting interior. There is a work station that folds away when not needed. The steering wheel and pedals also fold away when not in use. There is an onboard digital assistant named NOMI waiting to satisfy the passengers’ every request.
NIO is not planning to build its own factory, at least not right away. It says it will contract with others to manufacture cars to its specifications with the possibility of its own manufacturing facility some time in the future. The price? Warrior says “Directionally, we’re targeting the premium market for this vehicle.” In other words, it will cost about what a Tesla Model X costs.
By the time 2020 gets here, the NIO Eve will have plenty of competition. Targeting the SUV segment is a smart idea, although one has to wonder precisely how large the market for premium vehicles that cost an average of $120,000 and up will be. Also, there is little doubt that Level 4 autonomy will be barely adequate in 2020. Elon Musk plans to have Level 5 fully autonomous cars on the road 2 years before then.
Will the NIO Eve be a success? That’s impossible to say. The company does not seem to be on shaky financial ground the way Faraday Future is. It is being backed by investors such as Chinese internet service provider Tencent, Singapore based Temasek Holdings, Menlo Park based venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, and computer maker Lenovo. It gives the impression that it is being run by adults who know what they are doing compared to the juvenile bombast of Jia Yueting, the PT Barnum-like person behind Faraday Future, LeEco, and, to a lesser extent, Lucid Motors.
Elon Musk is always asking other companies to build compelling electric cars. With NIO, he may get his wish.