While we were preoccupied with the Geneva Motor Show, electrifying automotive startup NIO was in the United States revealing its vision for the autonomous car of the future. NIO plans to branch out from its Nürburgring-scorching, 1-megawatt electric supercar and bring autonomous electric vehicles to US roads by 2020. The Eve "vision car" puts NIO's stamp on the world of autonomous car design with intriguing features like forward-sliding doors, a roomy interior layout and an active glass canopy that comes to life with information and entertainment.
It's amazing how quickly design can move from groundbreaking to formulaic. Just a few years ago, we began seeing some of the very first visions of autonomous car cabins – and they were awesome, completely disrupting the forward-facing, driver's-seat layout that has dominated for generations.
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But as automaker after automaker after design house after automotive think tank has presented its own take on the autonomous car interior, elements like retractable steering wheels, front swivel seats, large digital displays and loads of panoramic glass have started to feel less radical and revolutionary and more utterly predictable. It seems like autonomous design opens up a lot more freedom for car designers to experiment with, but we're still just getting reshuffled versions of the same ideas.
The Eve has some of these predictable features, but NIO at least dangles its toes outside the box with some different ideas. The exterior is familiar enough, a stretched hatchback with a very concept-car presence. Faraday Future's research development VP Nick Sampson apparently thinks it's too familiar ... to the FF91 revealed (in drawn-out, torturous fashion) at CES 2017. Sampson took to social media after the Eve's reveal, implying it a clone and citing the design language and wheels as too close to what Faraday is doing.
Since the Eve is billed as nothing more than a vision, we'll let Faraday worry itself about those similarities. We're more interested in the differences, the first being the huge, forward-sliding doors that provide access to both the rear and front seats. Kind of like large, reverse minivan doors, these sliding slabs create wide, generous entry. The design requires the driver and front passenger to enter through the rear and make their way to their seats, assisted by a central aisle on the flat floor.
The interior houses a layout very different from what you'd expect to find in a six-seater. The front is simple enough, with driver and passenger seats wrapping their way into the side panels and dashboard to create a cozy little cocoon. Things gets more interesting in back, where the cushion on the back of the driver's seat accommodates a passenger facing the rearmost passenger. A fold-out table between them provides space for playing games, doing some work on a laptop, or diving into a snack.
Then there's the seat that everyone will fight over. Much like Volvo's extra-comfy rear seat, the Eve's passenger-side rear seat is sort of the VIP position, complete with a recline function and wraparound headrest. The good news for the other passengers is that the combination of autonomous driving technology and open layout should allow for switching seats while the car is in motion, giving everyone the chance for a fully reclined nap. The sixth (and seemingly least comfortable) seat is across from this VIP recliner, a fold-out cushion built into the front passenger seat back.
So there are no RV-style swivel seats, but there is the ubiquitous retractable steering wheel in perhaps the roughest iteration we've ever seen due to its weird rectangular shape. There are also deployable pedals so that "manual driving can still be experienced." How quaint.
When the driver isn't living like the ancients and exerting themselves steering, accelerating and braking, they can enjoy an explosion of content on the digital glass canopy, which can display basic information, augmented reality, entertainment content and more. For instance, NIO's digital assistant NOMI can use that glass to bring local points of interest to life with accompanying information, or highlight specific stars and constellations against the sparkling night sky. There's also a more traditional infotainment display in the "transparent plane" that stands in for the dashboard. Touch panel controllers help occupants navigate through settings and content.
Like previous autonomous car concepts, such as the Chrysler Portal and Rinspeed Oasis, the Eve's design incorporates a high percentage of transparent material. Its sides feature active darkening, allowing passengers to switch from transparent to opaque, depending upon whether they want panoramic views or shade from the sun.
"NIO's vision is to give people time back so that they can be everything they want to be," NIO CEO Padmasree Warrior wrote in a Linkedin Pulse post a few days after the car's reveal. "With NIO autonomous electric vehicles, you will be as productive as you would be at your desk, or as relaxed as you would be on your couch. As the car drives, you can conduct a video conference call for work or catch up on last night's episode of Limitless or Supergirl. The vehicle's interior can be set up for a commute, a road trip or even a nap. The car's AI system will know where you are going, what's on your calendar and it will adjust to your needs."
NIO intends to support that autonomous ride with technologies like vehicle-to-vehicle communications, pedestrian detection and multi-car "platooning."
A few weeks before revealing the Eve show car at SXSW earlier this month, NIO raced an autonomous version of its EP9 supercar around the Circuit of the Americas track in Austin, Texas, setting a track record for an autonomous car with a 2:40.33 run. It says the car completed the lap without any interventions, topping out at 160 mph (257.5 km/h).
NIO will work with partners like Mobileye, Nvidia and NXP as it moves toward launching a production autonomous vehicle. Get more of a feel for the Eve in the video below.