As digital connectivity and the automotive world merge, every major gathering wants a bigger piece of the action, and SXSW is no exception. That’s why the debut of a Chinese-backed self-driving electric car at Austin’s hip gathering of the tech, music and entertainment tribes this week was no surprise.
Formerly known as NextEV in the U.S., the company is putting a stake into the increasingly crowded automated- and electric-vehicle arena with a vehicle idea designed for maximum human comfort and minimum human involvement — the NIO Eve, the company’s “vision car,” which it plans to launch in America by 2020.
NIO US CEO Padmasree Warrior (formerly CTO of Cisco and Motorola and one of the leading tech executives, male or female, in Silicon Valley) described the vehicle as a companion and mobile living area that will take people from place to place while they enjoy amenities such as interior glass that doubles as smart displays.
“We’re excited about having autonomous electric cars for U.S. consumers in 2020,” stated Warrior, US CEO, in a press release. “Today we also unveiled our vision for the car of the future, focused on delivering unmatched user experience through leading-edge, software-defined hardware.”
She continued, “In 2015, commuters in the U.S. spent over 8 billion hours in their cars commuting. NIO’s autonomous electric cars will make your journey safe, productive and enjoyable. Our cars will be your companion and will know your needs, they will be a welcoming living space that moves you. We look forward to producing the first of the next generation of cars for the U.S. consumer. We know you will be delighted by NIO.”
Entry is through sliding doors, like in a minivan, and Nio has a digital assistant named “Nomi,” either verbally or via an augmented-reality display on the windshield.
Though built for comfort, NIO Eve can be driven manually as well as via its onboard artificial intelligence system. While details are relatively light, SXSW was buzzing with its talk of up to 600 miles of range per charge.
With its global headquarters in Shanghai, NIO’s Chinese name, Weilai, means Blue Sky Coming “and this is represented in our symbol,” it states on its website. “The top is about the sky, openness, vision, the future. The bottom part is about the earth, direction, action and forward momentum. Blue Sky Coming is our guiding philosophy and stands for our commitment to a brighter tomorrow.”
NIO has more than 2,000 employees in San Jose, Shanghai, Munich, London and eight other locations. In October, NIO USA announced that it was issued an Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permit by the California DMV and it would begin testing on public roads under the Autonomous Vehicle Tester Program guidelines as it progresses on its path to bring autonomy to market.
Investors include Tencent, Temasek, Sequoia Capital, Lenovo, TPG and other world-renowned investment institutions. The company is also involved in the FIA Formula Championship, the world’s first single-seater, all-electric racing series. The NextEV NIO Formula E team won the inaugural drivers’ championship title in 2015.
SXSW is a great venue for introducing the car because of its dreamy-eyed and digitally minded crowd of millennials. The global startup’s roadmap (it’s backed by a number of Chinese venture-capital firms) for bringing Eve to market might be a more difficult pitch to the crowd at a typical auto show, like Detroit or Chicago, or even to CES in Las Vegas.
Next up: NIO must find a partner for actually making the car. Chinese automaker JAC Motors has emerged as an early possibility. NIO also is working to deliver the currently implausible all-electric range of 600 miles. But SXSW is for casting visions. And Eve is certainly an interesting one.