The carmaker also has built dozens of Apple Store-inspired customers-only Nio House cafes and has a smartphone app with more than 800,000 users. Moreover, its vehicles are churned out at a new assembly plant in this city west of Shanghai, whirring with modern robots and more than 2,000 workers.
But Nio also has something that no Western company would covet: It is awash in red ink. The 5-year-old startup so far has sold just 15,000 vehicles and last year reported a net loss of $3.39 billion — triple what it was the year before.
Nevertheless, this plucky upstart is turning heads at old-guard automakers.
Legacy players from Detroit to Toyota City see Nio, and countless Chinese startups like it, as a potential model for new ways of creating and selling autos in an industry under siege by new technologies, electrification, autonomous driving and connectivity.
The new challengers epitomize the ambition and creativity now bursting out of a culture of homegrown entrepreneurs in the world's biggest auto market.
"These startups have very innovative ideas," acknowledged Dong Changzheng, executive vice president of Toyota's China operation. "We are very serious about their products. We study them carefully."
Nio touts its innovation on several fronts:
- Its all-electric vehicles are packed with high-tech digital goodies.
- Its retail and marketing strategy leans heavily on social media and the "community" beyond cars.
- It contracts vehicle production to an outside manufacturer, as Apple does with cellphones.
- It has shortened product development lead time to under three years from the typical five.
"The auto industry needs fresh blood," Nio CEO William Li said during this month's Shanghai auto show, where he unveiled the ET Preview, a sedan concept that foreshadows a Nio nameplate possibly arriving as early as 2020. "Our mission is to build a community connected by cars."