Nio is the most mysterious of the Chinese EV companies.

I have to admit that it’s hard for me to fully understand Nio, the Chinese EV start-up. The company places less importance on its vehicles and their features – and more on a wild, futuristic ecosystem of mobility.

Three years ago, I interviewed Padmasree Warrior, the company’s former chief executive (who left the company in December). But the interview raised more questions than it answered. “We’re not just building an electric vehicle,” she told me in Dec. 2015. “We are thinking about the entire transportation experience and how to optimize it.” I didn’t get it – and she did not provide concrete examples.

So I was excited last week to speak with Ganesh Iyer, Nio’s head of digital operations at the BloombergNEF San Francisco Summit on mobility. He was joined by Annie Shea Weckesser, vice-president of communications for Nio U.S.

The seven-seat, luxury ES8 electric SUV

The seven-seat, luxury ES8 electric SUV

Thankfully, Iyer and Weckesser had lots of examples of the “transportation experience” this time around. Nio sold an impressive 11,348 examples of the ES8 all-electric premium SUV in 2018 – but the ES8 and the sportier ES6 barely entered our conversation.

Instead, the two executives talked about Nio technology, communications, and the “Nio lifestyle.” The company contracts JAC Motors to manufacture its vehicles as a matter of moving fast to bring vehicles to the marketplace. The decision to use contract manufacturing – the same way digital devices are produced – underscores Nio’s strategy to operate more like a web/mobile company than a traditional automaker.

Mobile and Digital First

Weckesser said that Nio built an online community well before it produced a vehicle. There are currently more than 600,000 users of its app. Users earn “Nio Points” with every interaction, such as posting comments, images, and providing feedback about products and services.

Nio offers van-based remote service and concierge charging.

Nio offers van-based remote service and concierge charging.

Iyer explained that Nio cars are purchased directly via the mobile app. The app transmits the order to the factory and manages the entire payment process. “It’s also one click for service,” Iyer added. With that click, you can schedule a maintenance or service visit – or a Nio technician will come to you at a designated location whether it’s home, work, or any other location. If you prefer, Nio will even drop off a loaner car while the service is being done.

The smartphone app is the primary consumer interface. “We want to create a user-enterprise vision,” said Iyer. “All of our systems use the mobile internet.” Iyer said the app is open and API-driven. “Third-party developers can use our system to create an app in days, not weeks or months,” he said.

Nio Houses

The so-called Nio lifestyle is not just digital. There are 13 Nio Houses throughout China. “It’s like a Tesla Store on steroids,” said Iyer.

A Nio House

A Nio House

Weckesser put a different spin on it. “It's like an Apple Store meets a Tesla showroom meets the Battery hotel/spa/bar in San Francisco,” she said. Weckesser said there’s a “living room component.” As I understand, the goal is simply to get consumers to “spend time” with Nio – to relax and, if you like, learn something about electric vehicles.

Weckesser admitted, “It’s hard to conceptualize unless if you’ve been to China, understand the Chinese market and automotive consumer, and you can experience the brand in its entirety.”

A Multi-Level Charging System (including Battery Swaps)

Iyer said that the charging infrastructure in China is not nearly as developed as EV networks in the United States and Europe. Also, people live in smaller homes and apartments with limited opportunities for home charging. Nio’s response is a comprehensive, all-of-the-above approach to EV charging.

It feels like your vehicle is your friend.

The company created its own branded, sleek Level 2 home charging station designed by Nio’s Germany-based studio. But if you don’t have a place to install a charger, Nio offers a concierge charging service via a roaming van. The executives say that the mobile unit will add about 60 miles of range in 10 minutes. It’s like a DC fast-charger on wheels.

The company also runs the equivalent of a Tesla Supercharger network and a growing network of battery-swap stations. Nio is already operating 18 swap locations. Each one is equipped with at least five spare battery packs. The company says that it can swap in a fully charged pack in an ES8 in about three minutes. The ES8’s 70-kWh pack promises more than 200 miles of range (or closer to 300 miles based on NEDC testing). The network of stations, positioned between about 100 and 150 miles of one another, spans more than 1,200 miles.

Autonomy and AI

Nio’s big vision goes beyond mobile apps, hangout clubs, and a network of fast-chargers and battery-swap stations. “Autonomy is a core innovation,” said Iyer. He said that Nio is working now on its Nio 2.0 platform that will offer “true Level 4 autonomy.” Iyer clarified that “there will still be a steering wheel and humans can take control.”

The Nio EVE concept

The Nio EVE concept

The Nio executives pointed to the company’s EVE concept car, revealed in March 2017, to illustrate where the technology is going. “We look at the vehicle as a total living space,” said Iyer. “Or a digital companion.”

The Nio NOMI dashboard robot

The Nio NOMI dashboard robot

Iyer said the vehicle could become either a playful space or turned into a productive workspace where an executive could hold a meeting via video conferencing. All the while, the car is transmitting terabytes of data. And its inhabitants are utilizing a small robot called NOMI, positioned on the dashboard and already deployed in the ES8. “It has a smiley face, and it recognizes you,” said Iyer.

Frankly, I’m still not sure that I understand Nio – but I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about this futuristic vision of mobility. When I expressed my uncertainty, Iyer replied, “You have a roomy luxury car. You have the NOMI robot. It feels like your vehicle is your friend. You feel it. You have to drive it and then go to the Nio house. Believe me. You will be blown away.”