At beginning of 2017, in April, we revealed our Eve concept vehicle. Eve is a pure design exploration of the future of autonomy, and how that will materialise for our company. We presented the EP9 [electric supercar] the year before; that showcased our expertise in electric vehicles, and brought to life the ‘born on the racetrack’ side of our brand.
But we really wanted to highlight the complete other side of our brand, too, particularly how we’ll bring comfort and warmth to our vehicles, and that was showcased very clearly on the interior of Eve.
Eve is about eliciting joy through the user experience, and creating a very inviting interior environment. There’s a lot of technology and innovative thinking baked into that too, particularly with how the passengers interact with NOMI [the artificial intelligence agent] that was introduced with that car. NOMI is really the heart, soul and brains of the car. It’ll be there to support you, particularly as passengers transition to travelling in an autonomous vehicle.
We’re doing a lot of work around new materials to bring an inviting, almost living-room experience to life. With autonomy the notion of comfort will change. In today’s cars you’ve got a seat that’s set up for driving, and the ergonomics are set up for driving too, to keep you awake and alert at all times.
But, with autonomous vehicles, when the use changes to an environment where you can spread out, relax, even take a nap, the materials of that environment should change with that. There’s a lot happening in domestic and furniture design – more tactile and warm – that’s yet to translate to a car interior; what we’re trying to do is bring some of that to the car world.
This year has been quite a watershed moment in terms of public acceptance of the idea of autonomous cars. In the past, a lot of the time you had to tell people that a concept is autonomous.
When I was at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, where we presented Eve, somebody approached me and said, ‘I get it, I get it right away that this is an autonomous car.’ So I asked him why, and he said, ‘It doesn’t have a driver’s door – there’s only a single door that gives you access to the rear.’
That stuck in my mind, and proves that we’ve reached a threshold for broad public understanding of this type of vehicle.
We want to be a car brand that thinks differently, and see ourselves as much as a technology or lifestyle brand, that’s why we chose SXSW instead of going down the conventional car show route. We got a lot of different consumers there, perhaps ones that wouldn’t go to a car show, got a great chance to showcase our vision of the future, and got a lot of great feedback as a result.
The next piece of the puzzle was the reveal of Nio’s first production car, the ES8 [full-size SUV], that took place in China in December 2017. The main design DNA elements are all there, including the X-Bar front face, our surface treatment around the fenders, and the production version of NOMI that people will get in their vehicles.
We knew the ES8 was going to be a family SUV, so it has lots of innovative touches on the interior that will really make people notice that we paid attention to how people interact with their vehicles. The interior is very warm and inviting – the passenger seat can fully recline like a business class aircraft seat – and that links back nicely to Eve too. We are hoping that people will notice how the vehicle makes their life easier.
Looking back, I’m amazed at how much we’ve accomplished in a little over a year. It’s not just in revealing our brand and the three cars, we’ve done much more non-automotive work, including opening up the first of our Nio Houses in China, which are user experience centres. In there is a business centre, there’s child care, there are areas when you can hold events like TED talks, there’s a coffee shop. It’s all part of the experience you buy into when you buy a Nio product.
The design organisation took a lead role in creating these environments, and we make sure we’re affecting every consumer touchpoint to ensure we have a holistic brand.
I’ve had jobs outside of the automotive design industry: I have retail, product design and branding experience, and I think that’s part of why I was picked for this role, but it’s very exciting getting to do all of these functions, both car-related and not, in one place.
That’s a big attraction for anyone considering working at Nio too. We’re still a relatively young company, so there’s so much opportunity to get involved with a lot of new and exciting things that are coming up. The cars are a big part of that, but we do a lot of work off-car as well. For instance, my design team designed all of the charging units and the battery swapping stations for Nio. The breadth of things that a designer can do here is utterly unique.
With the wider industry this year, there’s been a continued exploration of interior technology, particularly focusing on screens and different approaches to how people interact with those screens.
As with previous years, the industry is also continuing to look at autonomy and what that means, and I hope things will continue to progress in that way – it’s very new ground and I think that design will be one of the key differentiators between brands, and crucial to whether the autonomous vehicles ultimately succeed or not.
We’re now at a watershed moment thanks to two big things – electric vehicles and autonomy. Those two elements have really enabled us to completely rethink the interiors of cars.
The way the car’s laid out, the space efficiency and then how you interact with the car when you’re no longer driving: those things are such an opportunity for designers that’s really exciting. There really are no right or wrong answers now in automotive design.
This interview is from our Car Design Review 5, a beautifully-produced 200-page book published this Spring and containing the past year’s finest concept and production cars, plus trend reports, an in-depth feature on our lifetime achievement award winner, industry legend Wayne Cherry, and interviews with many of the world’s foremost designers. If you’d like more details or the chance to purchase your own copy, go here.