ES8 went on sale in 2018. Smaller ES6 soon followed
Nio is going places fast with upmarket EVs and innovative brand building. We meet its CEO
A premium electric car start-up, founded by a serial entrepreneur with a bold plan to take on the giants of the car industry through new technology and business concepts – it’s easy to see why Nio has been referred to as ‘China’s Tesla’.
But scratch below the surface and you’ll find there are far more differences than similarities between the two firms. That starts with their underlying philosophies: whereas Tesla set out to use new technology to disrupt the car industry and reinvent the car itself, Nio is aiming to capitalise on the massive changes the industry is undergoing to reinvent the user experience.
It’s an approach that makes Nio worthy of attention among a swarm of Chinese EV start-ups and a genuine contender to expand globally as a credibly premium car brand. And it has certainly made a flashy start.
Founded in 2014 (originally as Nextev), Nio might be familiar to you through its Formula E team (which won the inaugural 2014-15 driver’s championship with Nelson Piquet Jr) or the EP9 electric supercar, which currently holds the Nürburgring lap record for EVs. Business types might even recall Nio’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange.
That all came before the firm launched a road car. The first of those was the ES8, an SUV that went on sale in China last year, and it was followed by the smaller ES6 this year. In April, Nio showcased the ET, a concept that previews a saloon due in 2020.
Underpinning its range is a huge operation: offices in Shanghai and Beijing, a production plant in Hefei, a development facility in Nanjing and two battery plants. That’s just in China. There’s a tech centre in San Jose, a design studio in Munich and a performance division in Oxford. All told, Nio employs around 10,000 staff worldwide, many involved in developing novel technology for its ever-expanding range of cars.
While Nio is investing heavily in electric and autonomous tech, its innovative approach can also be seen through its customer-facing side. Its Nio app is used both to sell cars and as the basis to create a community, complete with points-based reward scheme. It has a growing number of gleaming showroom-cum-members-club Nio Houses – think a Tesla or Apple Store mixed with a Starbucks. There’s also a line-up of merchandise that ranges from model cars to bold collaborations with high-end fashion and homeware designers.
And we haven’t even mentioned the Nio Power division, which operates a remote battery-charging service and has established a network of battery swap stations among other efforts. With Nio, there’s a lot to take in.
So where to start?
Autocar recently toured several aspects of Nio’s Chinese operation, including its ultra-modern production plant and several gleaming Nio Houses. But the best place to start isn’t nearly as flashy: it’s an innocuous, spartan, shared office in a quiet corner of its main HQ in an automotive technology park on the outskirts of Shanghai – because that’s where we meet William Li, Nio’s founder and CEO.
It’s not the sort of office you’d expect to find someone like Li in. A serial entrepreneur, he has made a fortune founding a string of tech-focused companies, which explains why he’s often referred to as ‘China’s Elon Musk.’ Again, the comparison is misleading. When Autocar meets Li, he’s polite and relaxed, with a humble demeanour that contrasts with his firm’s hugely ambitious growth.
Unlike Tesla CEO Musk, Li isn’t really a car industry outsider: his biggest success so far is Bitauto, a Chinese car media and used car marketplace. Which, he says, means “in the car industry, I’m an internet guy, but in the internet industry, I’m a car guy”.
Li says his determination to start an EV firm came in 2012. “Air pollution in China was very heavy. I was about to become a father and thought I should do something about it,” he says. Hence Nio’s Chinese name: Weilei, which translates as ‘blue sky coming’.
But the approach underpinning Nio dates to when Li founded Bitauto in 2000, capitalising on the huge growth in private car ownership in China. It gave Li the idea that he could sell new cars direct to consumers through a smartphone. He just needed the technology and infrastructure to catch up. “Sometimes you have a very good vision too early,” he says. “I waited almost 18 years until the time was right.”
The time is right now, Li says, because the industry disruption wrought by electric and autonomous technology means “I have a chance to break in”.
He adds: “Normally, Chinese firms produce cheap cars. As average prices are going up, they’re trying to provide better ones – but they’re still not premium. There isn’t a Chinese premium brand and we have a chance to become one.”
Success with Bitauto “helped me understand the future of the industry. The problem is not that current car makers can’t make a smarter EV. The major issue is they don’t know how to serve users in the mobile internet age.”
Li admits he’s not a huge car fan but says: “It’s not just about cool cars. It’s about the user experience, the benefit for our users. Our mission is not just a better car. It’s a better experience.”
But to reinvent the user experience, Nio still needs to make cars. That happens 300 miles or so west of Shanghai in Hefei, one of those Chinese cities you’ve never heard of with a population pushing 10 million.
There, comparisons between Tesla and Nio really fall apart because, instead of going its own way, Nio is drawing heavily on industry experience. Hefei is home to the state-owned JAC Motors and Nio struck a deal to contract manufacturing out to that firm. It’s not a joint venture, but a pure supply deal, with JAC building a new plant and providing the workforce that builds cars to Nio’s designs and standards.
Those standards are set by Nio’s management team at the facility, which is infused with industry experience: staff have previously worked for the Chinese divisions of Volvo and Ford, among other firms.
Investment analysts expressed concern last year when Nio halted plans to build its own production facility, preferring instead to build on its relationship with JAC. But when you see the plant, the deal makes sense, allowing Nio to short-cut its way to a slick production operation: the factory was completed and producing cars less than two years after the two firms agreed a deal.
More than 2000 JAC employees, mostly transfers from that company’s other plants, work in the 230,000m2 facility. But these are very much Nio’s cars. In particular, the body shop deals purely in aluminium and is heavily automated. (Around 97% of the work is done by 307 robots.) That reflects the high level of the metal Nio uses in its cars – more than 96%, in the case of the ES8 – and it has involved the firm refining seven different joining and bonding techniques to ensure maximum structural integrity.
Nio uses aluminium rather than steel to help offset the weight of the batteries. There’s plenty of other interesting tech underpinning Nio’s cars, including an electric powertrain system that uses a permanent magnet motor at the front axle and an induction motor at the rear.
Power comes from an 84kWh underfloor battery – which is perhaps the most notable of Nio’s innovations. It has been designed so the whole pack can be easily removed and replaced, a process that can be done automatically in around five minutes at a Nio Power battery swap station.
As well as cutting the time drivers need to stop to charge on longer journeys, the system allows Nio drivers to upgrade batteries, or to rent larger ones periodically.
“We invested a lot of R&D resource in it,” says Li, who adds that such technology is representative of the firm’s customer-led approach and shows the “different thinking” it has from, say, Tesla. “I think Tesla only cares about technology,” Li says. “We have good technology – more than 3000 patents – but our goal is about people, about users. We think if we have a product, a better service, users will support us.”
That service is seen in Nio’s app-based community, which also helps push the firm’s service and support packages.
The average sale price of an ES8 is around £55,000, which, Li says, shows there is demand for a Chinese premium brand: “Nobody thinks our car is expensive. That’s interesting: the reality is that’s expensive. If people think it’s a fair price, they think Nio is a premium brand.”
The firm has sold more than 15,000 ES8s so far and the short-term goal is steady growth in China. That means more cars, but although Li says “lots of models” are in development, the range won’t be as wide as those of traditional car firms.
Li has aspirations for Nio to expand worldwide but says “we will be patient” in doing so. He adds that the key will be finding a point of differentiation that can make Nio stand out in each country. “A market such as the UK is different from China,” he says. “So what experience do UK buyers expect and what difference can Nio make to provide a new experience?”
Li’s caution is understandable: Nio’s sales have slowed in recent months, hit by the struggling Chinese car market, and the firm has cut a number of jobs in its US office. That has raised concern among some investors and is a reminder that this is still an unproven start-up. When Nio was launched, Li told reporters its chances of long-term success were “around 5%”. Asked what odds he gives Nio today, Li offers 51%. “More than half, but not enough,” he says, smiling. “Car start-ups are the hardest working in the world. It’s not easy.”
While that may sound cautious, Li is still clear on his goal – and it’s definitely not becoming China’s Tesla. “We want to compete with the best car makers in the world,” he says. “Not just Tesla, but BMW, Audi and Mercedes.
What’s the Nio ES8 like to drive?
The biggest compliment you can pay the Nio ES8 is that driving one feels remarkably normal.
A very brief run in the large SUV on Nio’s Hefei proving track betrayed few signs that the ES8 is the product of a barely five-year-old firm. The air suspension made for a soft ride, the handling was direct and it had the instant, potent response you’d expect from a 644bhp, 620lb ft twin-motor electric powertrain. It likely wouldn’t disgrace itself in the company of a Tesla Model X or Audi E-tron.
There is a big tablet-style touchscreen in the centre of the dash, but unlike the Model X, the ES8 also has plenty of more traditional controls. In fact, the most notable tech you spot instantly is Nomi, the firm’s voice control system, which responds through a small characterful ‘head’ mounted on the dash, complete with electronic eyes offering all manner of electronic expressions.
Eat your heart out, Starbucks
At their most basic, the 14 Nio Houses serve as Tesla-Store-style showrooms – but they also underpin the firm’s desire to add value for its buyers. After all, Tesla Stores don’t have coffee shops, libraries containing a diverse range of largely non-car-related reading material, merchandise shops, children’s play areas (called ‘joy camps’) and meeting rooms.
They are effectively brand-building exercises, a way of reinforcing Nio’s premium credentials. Even if they are selling a lifestyle as much as a car, they’re nice places to relax: Autocar visited one in a busy Shanghai shopping district and, sipping a cappuccino, it was definitely more relaxing than the flagship Starbucks Reserve Roastery down the road…
This article was originally published on 9 June 2019. We’re revisiting some of Autocar’s most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times.
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