China plans to mix up electromobility with the NIO


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2017)

No other topic dominated the Shanghai Auto Show at the end of April as much as the discussions focusing on electromobility. The major manufacturers Daimler Benz, BMW and Volkswagen presented models designed specifically for the Chinese market. A Chinese electric car start-up is planning to contest the position of the top dogs in the sector – with its own vision of Auto 3.0. 

NIO, ‘Weilai’ in Chinese, means ‘blue sky coming’, which is what the next generation auto manufacturer self-confidently claims to be. The entire automobile industry is on the cusp of a tremendous technological revolution, and NIO will be forging its path into the future with intelligent, autonomous electric vehicles. 

The company was founded in November 2014 by William Li, a Chinese internet entrepreneur who has made a fortune for himself in China with a website for car ads. Together with investors from China and the USA, he has now invested his money in his own electric car start-up, with which he intends to not only compete with Tesla, but to actually become the number one electric car manufacturer worldwide. The company already operates development centres in Shanghai, San Jose, Munich, London and eight further sites. As a globally-operating start-up, NIO also wants to think globally and has therefore decided to open its research and development centres wherever the best people happen to be located. In Munich alone, which is responsible for design and lightweight engineering and vendor relationships, there are currently more than 120 experts from 27 different countries actively working on brand development and the future product range. According to its own information, the company employs a staff force of 2,000 across the globe. 

To date, NIO has unveiled three vehicle concepts. The EP9 supercar, the EVE concept car that visualises the future of autonomous driving and – most recently at this year’s Shanghai Auto Show – the future serial product, the ES8, a high-performance E-SUV that will be launched in China in 2018. 

With the EP9, the company has unveiled the world’s fastest electric car. At the Circuit of The Americas in Texas, the supercar set several records in February of this year – including the record for the fastest self-driving car. 

The EP9 weighs in at 1,735 kilogrammes, of which the battery alone makes up 635 kilogrammes. The power is listed as 1000 kW, providing the car with a top speed of 312 km/h and allowing the EP9 to complete the 5.516-kilometre lap in two minutes and 40.33 seconds, thereby achieving a top speed of more than 257 km/h. With a driver at the wheel, the electric car was considerably faster, completing the lap in just under half a minute less than in self-drive mode. Previously, the supercar completed a lap at the legendary Nordschleife at the Nürburgring race track in seven minutes and 5.12 seconds, simultaneously also setting the record for the fastest electric car. 

As of now, the company has opened its order books for the first small-batch product run. Ten EP9s will be produced, each costing US$ 1.48 million. 

“We aim to improve the lives of millions of people throughout the world. We want to give them more time so that they can be what they want to be”, states Padmasree Warrior, CEO of NIO in the USA, where the company plans to launch electric cars within the next three years. “We have a very clear vision of the vehicle of the future, which offers an unparalleled driving experience as a result of outstanding hardware and defined by trailblazing software”, comments Warrior. NIO calls this vision ‘Auto 3.0’, presenting it in the form of EVE – a vehicle that is more of a mobile lounge than it is a car. 

EVE has not just been conceived for driving, but has been designed to quite literally accompany us on our journey into the digital world. The car anticipates our wishes, learns by means of artificial intelligence and improves our wellbeing. This also includes the driving being assumed by an ‘autopilot’. Meanwhile, up to six occupants of the vehicle can relax on leather couches or use the time for productive work. Huge windows offer a panoramic view of the surroundings. Thanks to transparent OLED displays, EVE’s digital windscreen serves as an augmented reality platform, allowing films and information to be viewed. The digital heart and brain of the concept car is ‘NOMI’, an artificial intelligence computer system that automatically adapts to the requirements of its occupants and is constantly developing itself further for the benefit of passenger and road safety. EVE’s range is is said to be around 1,000 kilometres, with wireless charging – which takes ten minutes – providing the vehicle with an additional 300 km range. 

“Statistically, commuters in the US spent more than eight billion hours in their cars in 2015. With its autonomous electric cars, NIO wants to make driving safer, more pleasant and more productive”, explains Padmasree Warrior. EVE is to be launched in America by 2020. “We are very much looking forward to being the first company to manufacture next-generation cars for the US consumer. We want to be part of something that contributes towards a more sustainable future. This is why we are building Auto 3.0.” 

The vehicles we are familiar with today will also have to change radically. “This includes reducing air pollution and the number of accidents caused by human error”, states Warrior, elaborating further. The future of this innovative car is guaranteed by digital systems. And this is precisely where the CEO also currently sees problems in the automobile industry, an industry she claims does not always see the big picture. “Employing software developers is all well and good”, she states. “But what we really need are all-round developers who understand that developing new, appropriate hardware is just as important as the corresponding software. You can’t just develop new software and simply attach it to an old vehicle.” 

This means that the car of the future will have to add powerful sensors and artificial intelligence technology to its drive unit. “Auto 3.0 will be safer, because most road accidents could be avoided by autonomous driving. So, we can we achieve 360-degree vision by using better visual systems, probability algorithms and more cameras and sensors.” Needless to say, Auto 3.0 will be electric – as this has meanwhile become absolutely essential for the environment, and particularly in China, which is currently planning to introduce an electric car quota. All manufacturers are investing heavily in this area. Although the state still promotes the purchasing of electric cars with generous grants, a state-imposed minimum quota of electric cars will ensure that a certain ratio of all cars sold in China will have to be electric. 

Which is why the future serial product for the Chinese market – the ES8 – is of course a thoroughbred electric car. The seven-seater, with its two-three-two seating arrangement, comes in at a total length of more than five metres with a wheelbase of over three metres. The chassis and the bodywork of the ES8 are made entirely from aluminium. Two electric motors – one at the front, one at the back – drive all four wheels. The replaceable battery is designed for extraordinarily fast charging cycles – taking less time than required to fill a conventional vehicle at the petrol station. The official unveiling of the ready-for-serial production ES8 is planned for the end of the year, with the market launch in China at the beginning of 2018. 

But who will win the race when it comes to developing Auto 3.0? Padmasree Warrior comments: “We will all win if existing automobile manufacturers collaborate with computer development companies. This is not about Silicon Valley versus Detroit or Germany. This is about merging the knowledge within the automobile industry with that of the internet companies at the forefront of their sector. As industrial businesses, we have the opportunity to work together with the aim of jointly and accurately defining the parameters for Auto 3.0.” 

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Padmasree Warrior is CEO of NIO US. Prior to taking up her job at NIO, Padmasree was CTO at Cisco Systems, having previously spent 23 years at Motorola – most recently also in the position of Chief Technology Officer. She is considered to be one of the most influential businesswomen in the US. Padmasree comes from a Malay family and grew up in
Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, India. 

Picture credits © NIO

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