Ed. Note: This article first appeared in USA Today
Autonomous cars don’t come more cozy or crazy than the NIO Eve and EP9, two candy-colored vehicles that want you to believe the automotive future is almost here.
[caption id="attachment_39716" align="aligncenter" width="600"] NIO's Eve, a five-passenger autonomous car prototype, is slated to hit the market in 2020. (Photo: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY)[/caption]
The cars drew steady crowds this weekend here at SXSW Interactive, which once again invited technologists from major automakers and brash startups alike to lay out their roadmaps for the future of mobility.
Settled inside a low-slung downtown building that the Chinese-funded company had taken over for the festival, Eve presented a vision of mobility that turns the dreaded commute into a dreamy knitting or TV-watching escape.
A few feet away sat the sleek EP9, which had only recently set an autonomous car speed record at the nearby Circuit of the Americas, lapping the Formula One circuit at a driverless top speed of 160 mph.
“Today’s cars are the (Internet equivalent) of the dial-up modem,” says NIO’s U.S. CEO Padmasree Warrior. “The true next generation vehicle will come fully from the digital side.”
Warrior would seem well positioned to help NIO execute on a software-driving-hardware approach. The Indian-born engineer has served as chief technology officer at Cisco and sits on Microsoft’s board.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="540"] Inside NIO Eve: the self-driving car is meant to be more of a family room on wheels, with a range of interactive features that distract passengers while the vehicle drives itself. (Photo: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY)[/caption]
Warrior reports to NIO chairman William Li, the man behind Chinese online car sales company Bitauto.
But NIO is charging into an increasingly crowded space. Traditional automakers are rising to the electric and connected-car challenge by beefing up engineering staffs or partnering with tech companies, such as Waymo and Fiat Chrysler, and Uber and Volvo.
Start-ups such as Faraday Future and Lucid have promised their own high-tech electric vehicles in the coming years.
And Tesla, of course, has helped popularize the idea of a luxury electric vehicle, and hopes to broaden its market with the release of the $30,000-and-up Model 3 this summer.
San Jose-headquartered NIO, until recently known as NextEV, plans to have Eve — which is just a prototype at this point — ready for consumers by 2020. Pricing has not been announced.
While NIO’s EP9 sports car is basically a racy test mule used to fine tune on-board computers and sensors, Eve actually looks like a vehicle that could slip into a garage soon.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="540"] Padmasree Warrior, shown here at the recent TechCrunch awards, is the CEO of new autonomous car company NIO. (Photo: Steve Jennings, Getty Images)[/caption]
Sliding doors reveal a spacious five-passenger interior with a lounge-like feel. Touch screens abound, while a steering wheel and pedals would only appear if the car needed to hand over control.
A video promoting Eve shows a woman knitting, video-chatting with friends and sleeping while the world races by her outside the car.
Such autonomous and interactive capabilities would put Eve steps ahead of current offerings from traditional automakers such as Audi and Tesla, which feature driver assist capabilities such as emergency braking or advanced lane keeping.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="540"] NIO Eve is a five-passenger sedan with Level 4 autonomy features, which means the car can handle almost every driving situation but could had control back to the driven if necessary. (Photo: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY)[/caption]
“Autonomy is about people, about freeing you from being imprisoned in your car,” says Warrior, who says her own car lust started with the purchase of a 15-year-old Volkswagen Rabbit after she landed her first job.
“Imagine a future where you can look forward to your commute, where you can be productive and not miss out on any important moments.”