The Chinese electric car manufacturer NIO focuses on internationality


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2019)

A new day – this is one of the possible translations of NIO’s company name that fits the vision of company founder William Li: Blue Sky Coming. The global startup’s development process benefits from its team’s internationality: the cars may be assembled in China, but the design centre is located in Munich, practically in the heart of the German automotive industry. The accompanying software comes from San José in Silicon Valley – a clever strategic move on behalf of a company that was only founded in 2014, one that allows it to get its hands on special skills in precisely those regions whose expertise in this field is both notorious and renowned. The electric car manufacturer therefore officially uses a highly unusual seal of quality that is unexpected for a company whose headquarters are based in Shanghai: “Designed in Germany”. 

The special design of its innovative electric car originates from a highly experienced and successful designer from the US – Kris Tomasson, who has been vice president design for NIO since 2015. But how did an initially relatively unknown company manage to lure competent and experienced employees such as Tomasson from well-paid jobs at renowned companies to a Chinese startup? We spoke to the American about the reasons for his transfer, his work at NIO and the future of electromobility. 

Mr. Tomasson, you have held many interesting professional positions, including at BMW, Ford and Coca Cola. In 2015 you started at NIO. What prompted you to accept this position – at a company that was still relatively small and unknown at the time? 

The reason for my decision to join NIO at a point when the company was still very young was that it offered me the opportunity to use all my various design experiences, to design not just cars, but an entirely new brand. NIO was a blank canvas, and for a designer that simply was a dream job. 

During your career you have gained a lot of experience in various areas. How does that help you as Vice President Design at NIO? 

My wealth of experience and my skills that result from it enable me to see things differently. In other words, I am living the philosophy of connecting the dots, using my prior experience to look at things from different angles and then create something new, exciting and forward-looking. In my opinion, it is essential to stay competitive in an environment that is so rich in history and at the same time constantly changing. 

NIO's creative centre, i.e. the design and brand development, is located in Munich. The creative team now comprises more than 100 employees. How has this location developed and changed since you joined NIO? 

The development and evolution of the NIO Design Headquarters has been an extensive process from the very beginning – and it is still ongoing. To be honest, in the beginning it was a hard job to attract all the talent we needed to start with NIO in Germany, because at that point NIO was still quite unknown. This has changed completely, not least because we have managed to build a globally recognised brand. That is why nowadays we are in the fortunate position that talented and creative people apply for jobs at NIO on their own initiative because they want to become part of our team. In a relatively short amount of time we managed to create a highly professional organisation with an international multidisciplinary team. And now a few words about our office in Munich: we started with office spaces over two floors. Now, we can be found almost everywhere in the building, including some areas and floors dedicated only to the design teams to provide them with an environment that fits their needs and offers enough space to give free rein to creativity. 

The company presented the NIO eve as an innovative quantum leap in electric mobility as early on as 2017. How far has the development of the prototype progressed since then? And in your opinion, which of the functions and components of the show car will be able to go into series production? 

NIO eve served as a vision for the whole company. It has been and will always be an important part of our DNA, and that is why NIO eve is both referenced in our recent products and constantly used to develop our next generation of products. So, I like to say that NIO eve is already on the streets. With the creation of NIO eve we also proved that the future of autonomous driving can be inspiring and exciting at the same time. Especially when talking about the interior, I want to emphasise that we are approaching the interior of our cars as a third living space. It is no longer just about the environment you are sitting in when driving your car, but it will be about a new experience of mobility. That includes all the different kinds of entertainment, infotainment, space to relax, socialise and of course sometimes work. This will enable us to enjoy mobility as something completely different, because with the concept of NIO eve it is much more than just going from one point to another: travelling will become a holistic experience, it will give you back time and create a space to get closer to living your life without limitations – and that is definitely something we are actively working on transferring into production. 

What is your philosophy when working on such large-scale projects and what do you focus on? 

I don’t distinguish between projects of different sizes. For me, it is of utmost importance that the focus always is on delivering innovative design. That of course includes our users’ needs. As a designer, every detail – no matter how small or big or of any other characteristic it might be – is of equal importance and has to be developed and carved out meticulously. There is no coincidence in our designs, everything is intentional and equally important. 

What can we expect from NIO in the future? Do you have any new exciting projects in the pipeline? 

At the moment, we are developing many new exciting cars, but it is the projects that go beyond the classical car that will truly differentiate us from our competitors. Some examples would be the future development of NOMI, our in-car AI and digital companion, or new technologies such as the battery swap and all the services we are creating for our users to design a holistic NIO experience. The totality of all these different aspects and their facets stands for NIO’s vision of the future and the future of new mobility itself. 

Finally, a very general question: from today's perspective, how do you assess the development of electric mobility in the coming years? 

Electrification and the field of autonomous driving are real opportunities to change the cars themselves and the concept of the car as we know and understand it today, and it will be very interesting to see if the industry is taking advantage of all that. Today, we are looking back on over a century of history of the combustion engine, and now we are right at the beginning of a new era. The next 100 years in the field of mobility will be absolutely exciting, and I am deeply convinced that they will reveal incredible things. It is now up to design to accept the challenge of shaping the future of mobility, the future of electric cars, and make the most out of it for all our users. Designers now have an incredible opportunity to rethink mobility and create something new and sustainable that will shape the next century.

Kris Tomasson

Kris Tomasson has been NIO’s Vice President Design at the development centre in Munich since its creation in 2015. The American of Icelandic origins previously worked at major companies such as BMW, Ford, Gulfstream Areospace and Coca Cola in various design process positions. 

Picture credits © NIO

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