A Carmaker Wants To Make Phones Now, And It Won’t Be The Last

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Image: Nio

Burgeoning Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer Nio has provided us with yet more evidence we live in a strange timeline — it’s looking into making its own smartphones. Pull a reverse Apple, if you will. And while I’m personally not terribly interested or curious about what a Nio-branded phone might entail, the fact an automotive startup is enticed by such an idea at all says a lot about where the car industry is headed.

The news comes from none other than Nio’s CEO, William Li. Speaking to Chinese news service Sina in an interview published today, Li said that Nio has been motivated to explore the phone business by its customers, who supposedly want a phone that connects better to the EV maker’s products. It’s not about a new revenue stream, nor “commercial success,” in the chief executive’s words. “Getting the phone produced is easy, but building a good phone is challenging,” Li said — translation courtesy of CnEVPost.

That’s true — anyone can make a phone. Most of the components are standardized and come from a handful of suppliers, and there’s even a cottage industry of firms that specialize in badly cloning desirable models and selling them on Amazon for less than a tenth of the price, which is still definitely too much. Hell, Nio could enter into a scheme where it sells rebranded phones from prominent Chinese OEMs, like OnePlus or Oppo, if it really wanted to. There are lots of ways this could play out.

The phone itself is immaterial — it’s Li’s rationale that deserves our attention here:

“Think about it — if by 2025 an Apple model is released and 60 percent or more of Nio’s users use Apple phones, Nio has no defense at all. If Nio doesn’t do something today to prepare, it’s not going to be fun at that point.”

Li envisions a worst-case scenario where a Nio customer that owns an iPhone — as most apparently do — ditches their EVs in favor of the tech giant’s. Maybe because they love the Apple brand; maybe because they want a car that works better with their phone. Maybe because Apple comes out with some sort of nonsensical, convoluted subscription scheme where you get an iPhone, Apple TV+ and an Apple Car for $750 a month. Who the fuck knows? Anything could happen, and he’s right to worry about it.

I nerd out over consumer tech, and even I’ve never once thought that I should base my car purchase around my phone. Maybe Li’s customer research highlights that the Chinese market is different. Regardless, I feel almost silly that I hadn’t considered the possibility of a car company expanding into consumer tech before today. Usually it plays out the other way around, because the companies that make phones habitually underestimate the challenge of producing the mechanical marvel that is the automobile at scale and are quickly flummoxed when it inevitably proves tougher to crack than they anticipated. Apple could tell you all about that, if it ever publicly acknowledged the car it’s been not-so-secretly building for a decade.

These days, Nio’s active in Europe via Norway and, more recently, Germany; the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark are next. Nio was recently seen hiring in California and is eyeing a U.S. debut by 2025. It’s just a matter of time. And while it may not matter to you or I whether the badge on our steering wheel matches the logo on the back of the brick in our pocket, it’ll surely matter to some people if Apple ever figures its shit out. Don’t be surprised if some carmakers start throwing strange, bad ideas at the wall in response. Everyone wants to be Apple.

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