What if, as a substitute of looking for out a charger and plugging in for half an hour, you might swap out your depleted EV battery for a brand new one in simply 5 minutes? That’s the query requested by Nio, a 7-year-old Chinese language electrical automotive firm with a community of greater than 1,300 battery-swap stations for doing precisely that.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of those stations are in China, with 100 in Shanghai alone, serving clients who principally reside in flats and lack the area to put in a charger at residence. Prospects purchase the automotive however lease the battery, with the month-to-month charge granting them entry to the swap station community.
In contrast, there are at the moment solely 27 so-called Energy Swap Stations in Europe, throughout Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, however extra are supposedly within the pipeline. Nio plans to broaden into the UK by the tip of 2024, however, identical to different Chinese auto brand BYD, the US just isn’t at the moment on Nio’s roadmap.
Guided by their navigation system, Nio drivers arrive on the battery-swap stations, park in a delegated bay, then let their automotive maneuver itself into place, the place it’s autonomously lifted into the air and its battery swapped for a totally charged one. The swap certainly takes 5 minutes and, whereas the stations are manned for now, Nio says the complete course of might quickly be automated.
Like so many Chinese language EV startups poised to dominate the European market, Nio might not but have crossed your radar, regardless of its intelligent reply to vary anxiousness. The model launched again in 2016 with the reveal of an electrical hypercar known as EP9 in London’s Saatchi Gallery. Solely a handful had been constructed and all are retained by Nio itself, the place they now act as automotive objets d’artwork in “Nio Homes.” One other bid to be totally different, these homes kind a community of city-center retail areas and, apparently, members’ golf equipment for Nio clients to socialize, seize a espresso, be part of a yoga class (sure, yoga) or deal with their inbox in a shared workspace.
Two years after the splashy EP9 launch got here a smart electrical SUV known as the ES8. This was adopted by the smaller ES6, and, in 2021, Nio ventured past China, increasing into Norway first, with Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands following in 2022.
An Sad Design Division
That brings us to the current day and the launch of the all-new, second-generation ES6. Solely it’s known as the EL6 in Europe as a result of a German court docket dominated the Chinese language title is simply too much like what Audi may theoretically name an electrical S6.
At 4,863 millimeters, the five-seat EL6 is sort of precisely the identical size as a Mercedes EQE SUV, however Nio’s battery-swapping structure makes its automobiles fairly extensive. Within the EL6’s case meaning 2,212 millimeters, or barely wider than a Vary Rover. That further width means loads of inside area, with the second row feeling particularly roomy, whereas the outside aesthetic is good-looking and properly proportioned. It’s an enormous automotive, however not an ungainly one. Except you order it in black, in fact, as a result of then the roof-mounted lidar sensor makes it seem like a London taxi.
This isn’t the one automotive to have a lidar progress on its brow, and one suspects the motorcar is about to endure the identical awkward few years smartphones went by with the front-facing digital camera notches that had been as soon as ridiculed and now principally ignored. Certainly, Volvo’s upcoming EX90 additionally has a taxi-light lidar, however the G9 by XPeng, one more Chinese language EV maker, tidily integrates the all-seeing sensor into its headlight cluster.
When requested why Nio opted for the roof, lead automobile expertise supervisor Pep Pujol Mur tells me: “We had the choice of the bumper integration, however we requested the [autonomous driving] division the place the simplest place is on the automotive, the place it could actually see as a lot as technically attainable, and that’s on the high and middle.” However, even so, Mur is compelled to confess that his “colleagues on the design division weren’t so pleased.”
In an try and regain floor, nevertheless, Mur asserts that Chinese language patrons apparently now see the lidar bump as an indication of a automotive filled with expertise, then virtually instantly undermines this gambit by suggesting the offending tech will finally be hidden from view.
Smarter Than Sony’s Automobile
Onlookers could be proper to imagine the EL6 is packed to its panoramic roof with expertise. The automotive is supplied with 33 sensing items, together with radar, 11 cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and, in fact, that lidar lump Nio hilariously calls “the watchtower.” These all feed information to the automotive’s mind, which consists of 4 Nvidia Drive Orin X chips with a mixed computing energy of 1,016 TOPS (trillions of operations per second). For context, the Afeela prototype revealed by Sony and Honda earlier this 12 months claims a most computing energy of 800 TOPS, and that isn’t due out till 2026.
Regardless of all that processing energy, Nio isn’t going all-in on autonomy simply but, and bafflingly the automotive affords solely Level 2 autonomous driving. This implies it could actually maintain in lane and a protected distance from the automobile forward as commonplace, whereas a beta model of Nio’s Navigate on Pilot Plus system handles freeway on and off ramps, lane merging, and overtaking—however the driver’s fingers should stay on the wheel.
The all-wheel-drive EL6 has a 150-kW motor on the entrance and a 210-kW motor driving the rear axle, so a complete output of 360 kW (483 horsepower) and 700 Nm of torque. Standstill to 62 mph is a claimed 4.5 seconds—greater than sufficient for a family-size SUV, in fact—and max vary is supposedly 329 miles with a 100-kWh battery, or 253 miles from the smaller (however solely marginally lighter) 75-kWh pack.
Nio clearly likes to give attention to battery swapping as a substitute of charging, however because the European swap community continues to be so small, potential EL6 patrons should be conscious that the 75-kWh battery can solely cost at as much as 140 kW. The 100-kWh pack is healthier, however nonetheless maxes out at round 180 kW, effectively in need of the 225 kW of a Kia EV6 or anticipated 270 kW of the upcoming Porsche Macan EV.
Now, maybe tellingly, WIRED didn’t get an opportunity to totally drain the battery throughout a manufacturer-hosted drive occasion, or use a swap station. However on our first 57-mile drive we noticed the 75-kWh pack fall from 82 p.c and an indicated 209 miles of vary, to 63 p.c and 158 miles remaining. The automotive averaged 4.1 miles per kWh, suggesting a real-world vary of simply over 300 miles would have been attainable. That’s some 70 miles past the EL6’s WLTP score.
A second 40-mile journey included lengthy stretches of derestricted German autobahn and noticed the battery fall from 63 p.c to 39 p.c, averaging 3.1 m/kWh and ending the day with 100 miles of vary remaining.
Meet Nomi, Nio’s $640 Animated Alexa
The EL6’s double-glazed cabin is serenely quiet, with barely a touch of motor whine from the drivetrain nor wind noise, even at excessive pace. Nio has mercifully averted the temptation so as to add an artificial soundtrack, however as a substitute equips the EL6 with a unbelievable sound system. Designed in-house and in any other case unbranded, it’s highly effective, exact, contains 11 audio system and a subwoofer, and is appropriate with Dolby music from Tidal, plus native help for Spotify.
There are a dizzying 9 driving modes to select from. These embody Eco, Consolation and Sport, plus a Sport+ mode that may be enabled with a one-second press of the steering wheel’s two outermost buttons. Do that, and the EL6 is severely fast. It additionally handles remarkably effectively for an EV of this measurement, with nice traction out of corners and a way that Nio’s chassis engineers sought to bake in some enjoyable alongside the consolation.
That mentioned, the steering is sort of totally devoid of really feel. It’s additionally relatively mild, however this may be fastened through the use of Sport mode, or establishing a customized mode that mixes mediocre, energy-saving acceleration with firmer, extra reassuring steering. There are three ranges of regenerative braking energy, starting from zero to a mode that replaces the bodily brakes more often than not, however isn’t configured to carry the automotive to a cease.
An extra three drive modes for snow, mud, and sand reap the benefits of the all-wheel-drive system, plus there’s a towing perform. These are all reachable from each the touchscreen and a bodily button subsequent to the gear selector. Or you may ask Nomi, the voice assistant baked into all of Nio’s automobiles.
As commonplace, the one clue as to Nomi’s existence within the cabin is a small emblem and a standing mild on the highest of the dashboard, like that of an Amazon Echo good speaker. However for an additional €600 ($637)—€600!—you may give Nomi a bodily kind, with a round show that reveals the assistant’s animated face and turns to greet whoever says its title. In case you have extra money than sense, it’s a enjoyable strategy to give Nomi some character, and the turning of the motorized display screen is a helpful strategy to know if the system has heard you or not.
How Nomi dons a pair of headphones may make you smile, however be warned this digital butler is nothing particular. It typically failed to reply after we mentioned the “Hey, Nomi” wake phrase, which it’s a must to say repeatedly, as Nomi doesn’t even hear out for follow-up questions in the way in which Alexa or Siri does.
Nomi can management music, assist with driving instructions, learn out climate forecasts, change drive modes, say how a lot battery cost stays, and inform jokes. It might probably additionally take a photograph of the cabin with a digital camera close to the central mirror, which is certain to be hijacked by youthful passengers on each single journey. Controlling music and studying out the climate—there’s definitely nothing groundbreaking right here, however, if we’re being charitable, there’s all the time a slim probability over-the-air updates may create a rival Google Assistant.
No CarPlay, No Android Auto
Likewise, we’re eager to see what Nio has in retailer for its infotainment system, which shuns each Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The EL6 has a 12.8-inch touchscreen show within the middle of the dashboard, plus a ten.2-inch display screen forward of the driving force, each operating the corporate’s personal software program, known as Banyan. The primary UI is similar to Tesla’s, with a good navigation system voiced by Nomi and knowledgeable by Google’s Locations API. Dig into the menu system and there’s lots to get your head round, from security techniques and a pet mode to a meditation app greatest not used whereas driving.
Give your self an hour, as you’d when establishing a brand new smartphone, and also you’ll doubtless by no means want half the menus ever once more. Fortunately, there’s a helpful shortcut web page for gathering your most-used features in a single place, accessible with a single swipe from the house display screen.
As with so lots of in the present day’s automobiles, the EL6’s driver-assistance expertise typically feels hellbent on doing extra hurt than good. The very first intervention by the lane-keep help steered the automotive towards an oncoming coach as a result of we had strayed extensive round a nook to permit further area. Later, the EL6 briefly slammed on the brakes as a result of it had wrongly assumed a automotive approaching from a junction wasn’t going to cease. The lidar, in its “optimized place,” noticed this automotive (all autos it could actually see seem within the driver show), and pictures robotically saved by the Nio confirmed how its cameras had a transparent view of all lane markings, but it nonetheless braked onerous at 60 km/h.