William Li (Li Bin) founded the NIO Automobile in November 2014, and, on the same day, he announced the first product: an electric supercar.
The company founder was the Chairman of Bitauto and NextEV, and his involvement in FIA’s electric racing series Formula E helped him understand the technology behind a high-performance vehicle. He was already a billionaire and decided to invest in electric mobility. That’s why he established the NIO brand, and soon it received investments from American and Chinese companies such as Sequoia, Lenovo, or TPG.
After 18 months since the company was established, William Li introduced the first vehicle: the NIO EP9 sports car. It was built only to show the company’s R&D capabilities in developing new products, and the result was astonishing for its times. Its one-megawatt power (1,360 hp) came from four engines, one for each wheel. But the most impressive part of the vehicle was the active suspension and aerodynamic that made the car lap the Nurburgring in less than seven minutes.
After the EP9 came on the market at a higher price than a Bugatti Veyron, NIO turned its eyes to the premium electric market, which was non-existent. Apart from some BMWs and Audis, there was no other special model. In 2017, NIO introduced a new model, a seven-seat SUV with an all-aluminum bodywork. Sales and deliveries started in 2018, and in the same year, the Chinese carmaker announced a five-seat SUV, with deliveries that started in 2019.
With a company on the verge of succeeding in a market dominated by gasoline engines, William Li came with a few innovative ideas. Its cars used a replacement battery system. On the downside, the owner had to take them out in order to recharge them and then install them back. On the plus side, he could have them swapped with fully-charged ones and have the car ready to run in less than 10 minutes.
NIO knew that the customers would be annoyed by the recharging time, especially on long trips. That’s why it came with the idea of Power Swap, which was a service that could give the car a fresh set of batteries. They were not everywhere, but the company was expanding its territory, especially on the U.S. market.
The company’s founder also noticed that its customers had a need to socialize with other people who shared their ideas and built the NIO houses not only as showrooms but also as clubhouses for its customers. Moreover, it created a dedicated app that allowed customers to connect with each other.
NIO opened the way to a different approach to the car market. Its management understood that a car was no longer just a transportation device. It also passed the show-off factor for luxurious vehicles and emerged into a way of life. That way was supported and promoted by NIO and led them to a successful business plan.
With technology on his side, William Li asked the Californian Government to give its cars a license for testing the autonomous driving program. NIO started an extensive program on Californian highways, along the California State Route 1, and into other urban areas. The testings showed no unpleasant surprises. He competed against Tesla who will have the first full autonomous Level 5 vehicle on the market. The testing program was delayed due to the COVID-19 situations in 2020 and 2021, but NIO pressed harder and continued its program in China as well.
Some called William Li the Elon Musk of China since both entrepreneurs shared common values and ideas. But the NIO was a different kind of carmaker. It was focused on premium family cars and especially SUVs. The NP9 was more or less a show-off while its other products were sold in higher numbers. Their swap-battery system was unique in the electric-car industry and ensured a fully charged battery in seven minutes, as a NIO user showed it.
Another important step was NOMI, the AI assistant placed on top of the dashboard. It used programs to create a discussion with the driver and other car occupants while driving, and its OLED screen was able to display a smiling face while taking pictures with the occupants with the in-mirror camera. It also communicates with the main NIO server via the Internet to enhance its abilities.
Thanks to its investors and a solid financial background, William Li succeeded in creating a brand that can revolutionize the electric-car industry.