Padmasree Warrior leads upstart in push for autonomous cars
January 29, 2017
Updated: January 29, 2017 1:58pm
January 29, 2017
Updated: January 29, 2017 1:58pm
She regularly graces lists of the most powerful women in Silicon Valley. Her resume includes long stints in the top ranks of Motorola and Cisco. But now Padmasree Warrior is taking her talents on the road.
An engineer at heart, Warrior stays hands-on with everything from where to place the car doors to fabric selection. She joined Nio in December 2015 as the 16th U.S. employee. She worked in a windowless basement office and out of trailers in the parking lot while the 85,000-square-foot building Nio now inhabits was remodeled — a far cry from the executive offices of Motorola, where she spent 23 years, and Cisco, where she worked for seven years before joining Nio.
Nio was founded in 2014 by entrepreneur William Li, the co-founder of Bitauto Holdings, which provides pricing data and other services to car dealers in China.
Press reports say the privately held, 2,000-person company has raised nearly $1 billion. Besides San Jose, where employees focus on user interfaces, it has major offices in Munich for auto design and London, the hub for its high-performance electric race car.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You could have had any job in Silicon Valley. Why this one?
A: I wanted to go somewhere where a whole industry is at the point of changing. I thought of transportation and education — both had tech at their periphery, not the center. Then I met William. He wanted someone to start a U.S. company that would be part of his parent company. It sounded exciting, so I jumped in.
Q: What is your vision of Nio’s product?
A: I think of the car of the future as a robot that looks like a beautiful high-performance car. Fundamentally cars haven’t changed in the past 60 or 70 years, other than improvements in fuel efficiency or adding a little more technology. Most people are OK with their cars, but they hate the time they spend in traffic and commuting. We want to give people their freedom and time back.
Q: How will you do that?
A: We are making Car 3.0. We want to make the car your living space and your companion. It should talk to you and understand your needs.
Q: Most companies making autonomous cars expect to deploy them through a ride-hailing service. But you plan to sell directly to consumers. Why?
A: A car is a very aspirational product. For many people, it’s an extension of their personal space. I leave my water, bag, gym clothes in certain places in my car. When we have autonomous vehicles, they can be even more an extension of space, like another room, or your office.
Q: What is your timeline and what level of autonomy will you offer?
A: In 2018 we will have vehicles for sale in China. They probably will be Level 2 (see box). In the U.S. market, we will have a Level 4 car in 2020.
Q: When do you anticipate full autonomy with no driver controls?
A: The technology will probably advance fast enough to get rid of the steering wheel and pedals sooner, but regulations and people’s views will delay the adoption. Cars with no steering wheels or pedals, around 2025 to 2030.
Q: How will autonomous cars change our world?
A: I think the impact will be bigger than the shift to the mobile Internet and smartphones. The autonomous vehicle becomes a platform for commerce and content. You’ll be watching videos and movies in the car; there’s a chance for new ad revenue. You’ll be more productive, actually working in the car. We won’t need parking lots. People can move away from crowded urban centers, live in the countryside and work in the city when the commute becomes a pleasure instead of a pain. The insurance industry will change, (as will) vehicle repair.
Q: Where will you manufacture?
A: Consumer vehicles for the China market will be made in China. For the U.S. and global markets, we are still pursuing different options, looking at the U.S. as a potential place to manufacture.
Q: You’re often cited as a rival to Tesla. Who do you see as your competitors?
A: My competition is really the internal combustion engine. It’s not Tesla or anyone else. We need people to get comfortable with electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles.
Q: WIll you have a luxury price tag?
A: We aren’t targeting just exclusive, super-luxury buyers. (We’re making) something reasonably affordable. As soon as the technology costs come down, the vehicle costs come down. We want to make lives better for millions of people around the world.
Q: Why did you create the EP9 race car?
A: Most people think of electric vehicles as not serious cars, very low speed, something to run errands. We wanted to break that myth and show you can have amazing performance. Building an electric vehicle that broke world records established our credibility.
Q: Will you sell the EP9?
A: It’s a limited edition, but we’ve gotten increasingly more interest so we’re looking at making a broader platform. It’s a $1.2 million high-performance race car.
Q: You originally launched as NextEV and recently rebranded as Nio. Why change your name so early in your company’s life?
A: NextEV was about being the next-generation electric vehicle company. We didn’t intend it to be the brand name. We wanted a global brand name. Nio can be pronounced in every language and sounds like new day and new beginning. Our logo captures the vision of the company. The arrow at the bottom denotes earth; the semicircle at the top denotes sky. We always talk about the company as blue sky coming.
Q: How does the auto industry differ from the technology world?
A: We’re building a complicated machine that moves at high speeds. People’s lives depend on it. It’s a very different product experience. For consumer products, design and usability are as important as the technology. When you build a router, it’s not like a user touches it every single day or sits in it.
Self-driving car levels explained
The federal government and the auto industry have developed ranking systems to describe the levels of autonomous-car technology. Nio and other autonomous-vehicle startups are targeting various kinds of autonomy in their products.
Level zero Driver performs all control functions.
Level 1 Driver performs most functions, but a few — such as driver-assist braking — are augmented by automation.
Level 2 At least two of the car’s control functions can work together in automated mode — such as adaptive cruise control combined with lane centering — but the driver still must pay attention.
Level 3 Driver can turn over total control of the car under certain conditions, with the car largely responsible for monitoring for any sudden changes to the environment. Driver must still be available to take control if needed.
Level 4 Car is capable of driving itself but has controls for humans to drive when they choose.
Level 5 Car drives itself, with no option for human driving.
— David R. Baker