BEIJING — Nio, the Chinese electric vehicle startup that uses swappable batteries and puts a bobblehead digital assistant on the dashboard, wants to launch a global model in the U.S. by 2020.
But the question is how to take advantage of the smartphone app-driven retail model the brand uses in China when the vehicle debuts in the land of the dealer franchise.
Padmasree Warrior, Nio's U.S. CEO, says the EV upstart brings several innovations that set it apart. For instance, in China, where Nio launched its ES8 crossover in December, the brand sells cars directly to users through a mobile phone app.
"This is where we are very, very different from other companies," Warrior said last week at the Beijing auto show, where Nio announced plans for a six-seat ES8 in addition to the seven-seater. "It's really changing the paradigm of having to go to a physical dealership."
The ES8 also gets swappable batteries that offer a three-minute battery change alternative to charging. But nothing stops the owner from plugging in to a regular charging station.
Engineers also developed a digital assistant called Nomi that perches on the dash. People can chat with it and lean on its artificial intelligence to help with tasks such as navigation.
Warrior, former chief technology officer at Cisco Systems, said the ES8 sold out its first 10,000 Founders Edition reservations for a nonrefundable 50,000 yuan ($7,900) down payment on the 548,000 yuan ($86,880) sticker.
Deliveries should be completed by the end of September, she said.
After that, Nio starts shipping the base edition, which goes for 448,000 yuan ($71,000).
The ES8 was developed with China in mind.
But Warrior says another global vehicle is in the works for 2020. She declined to identify that vehicle's body type but said it would likely target the U.S., Europe and Asia.
The 2020 vehicle will also likely feature higher levels of autonomous driving, as envisioned in the brand's Eve concept, which resembles a wedge-shaped mobile lounge.
"How will we utilize the same retail concept — we're still working on those," Warrior said. But one thread will remain the same: The goal will be to shift shopping online.
"You can do a lot more through the mobile Internet," she says. "So why not?"