This Chinese-Backed Startup Will Start Selling Self-Driving Electric Cars By 2020
NIO, the Chinese-backed startup formerly known as NextEV, is bringing an autonomous electric car to the U.S. by 2020, the company’s U.S CEO Padmasree Warrior announced Friday at an event during SXSW in Austin, Texas.
The startup will partner with Israeli-based Mobileye, which develops camera-based systems to help drivers avoid collisions, Nvidia, and NXP Semiconductors, the world’s largest chip supplier to the automotive industry. Nvidia has developed an artificial intelligence computing platform that Audi and other automakers are using to deploy autonomous vehicles.
NIO’s self-driving car will have Level 4 autonomy, a designation defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers as a vehicle that can handle all aspects of driving in most conditions, even if a human driver doesn’t respond when asked to take over controls.
The car will first be introduced to the U.S. market followed by Europe, Warrior told Fortune in an interview following the event.
The car will be completely capable of driving itself in “constrained environments,” Warrior says. The company is targeting commuters, people who spend more than 25 minutes traveling in car to and from work.
“The problem we’re trying to solve with autonomy is that as we say ‘giving people time back,” Warrior says. “We addressing those people whose commute is a big issue.”
The vehicle will have a steering wheel and pedal so its human occupants can take over driving if they want. NIO didn’t announce a price, although Warrior says the company is targeting the premium segment.
This is not a luxury car, Warrior clarified, adding the vehicle will not operate as a ride-hailing service either. Instead, it will be affordable enough for a family to buy.
“We think most people target Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy for ride-share because they don’t know how to make it cost effective,” Warrior says. “We feel we have some unique innovations that allow us to make a car to quite affordable.”
The company, which has received venture funding from Tencent, Temasek, Sequoia Capital, Lenovo, and TPG, also unveiled Friday a concept car called NIO Eve that’s meant to showcase how it sees autonomous vehicles interacting with humans. Some of these ideas could make it into Nio’s 2020 production vehicle.
The NIO Eve has a panoramic roof, sliding side doors, and lounge-like seating in the back. A folding table in the back can be used as a work or play space. Seating can recline to allow for an occupant to sleep. Two forward seats can be accessed from the main interior and digital displays provided on the active glass when needed to support non-autonomous driving.
The concept vehicle is also equipped with NOMI, a voice-activated artificial intelligent digital companion that will personalize the driving experience for its human occupants based on their preferences, road conditions, and activities—like teleconferencing or sleeping—that they’re participating in.
The AI vehicle is designed to constantly learn about its occupants and their preferences. A video presented during the event expresses what NIO has in mind. A young girl, who narrates the ethereal video, says at one point, rather creepily, “it knows how I feel and what I’m thinking.”
NIO was issued in October an autonomous vehicle testing permit by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The company opened their Silicon Valley headquarters that same month.
The following month, the startup unveiled its electric supercar the NIO EP9, its first product under the startup’s new NIO brand. The NIO EP9 electric supercar, which broke an electric vehicle lap record at Nürburgring Nordschliefe, will have a limited production run of just six and a steep price. The car cost about $1.2 million to make, a NextEV spokeswoman told Fortune at the time.
The NIO EP9 drove autonomously in February without any interventions, recording a time of 2 minutes, 40.33 seconds at a top speed of 160 miles per hour.