Chinese electric vehicle maker Nio has quietly hired a Chinese computer vision expert to lead its self-driving unit following the June departure of Jamie Carlson, its tech lead since early 2016.

Why it matters: The management change comes as Nio works on its self-driving technology development to catch up with peers after securing $1 billion in funding from the Chinese government.

  • Nio has trailed behind rivals Tesla and Xpeng Motors in making autonomous vehicles after a series of layoffs last year when the company was under a massive cash crunch.
  • It dismissed 141 employees in its third round of cutbacks in December, the majority of which came from its AV team, and partnered with Intel’s Mobileye to share the cost of developing robocars. The company currently has around 40 self-driving engineers based in the US, along with 160 in China.
  • The latest hire will help Nio build in-house self-driving capabilities and partly offset its R & D headcount in the US, which it has been gradually reducing, people close to the company told TechNode.

Details: Ren Shaoqing, a computer vision expert and co-founder of Chinese self-driving startup Momenta, recently joined Nio as the assistant vice president of autonomous driving, according to three persons familiar with the matter.

  • Jamie Carlson, Nio’s AV tech lead since 2016 and a former Tesla and Apple engineer, left the company in June, according to a Chinese media report. Nio declined to comment when contacted by TechNode on Friday.
  • Ren will report directly to CEO William Li, taking charge of Nio’s perception solution development, which provides visuals of vehicle surroundings using cameras and sensors.
  • Among the most highly cited Chinese researchers in self-driving technology, Ren in 2016 co-founded Momenta, an AV startup that develops camera-based software solutions for self-driving cars.
  • Nio has backed Momenta since 2017, when Nio Capital, a venture capital fund established by the EV maker, led its $46 million Series B. German auto giant Daimler was also involved, along with other investors.
  • Momenta also builds high-resolution maps that facilitate more accurate road navigation and enhanced safety for AVs. It was granted a permit to draw up high-definition navigation maps from Chinese regulators in 2018.
  • Momenta did not respond to a request for comment.

Context: Nio’s progress in self-driving car technology has slowed over the past year. On the other hand, Xpeng Motor has advanced rapidly, and has a growing reputation in automated driving capabilities.

  • During a call with analysts on Tuesday, Nio CEO William Li revealed that the proportion of owners who ordered full Nio Pilot self-driving package is around 25%, far lower compared with the 68% of Tesla buyers which opt in.
  • Li added that Nio is on track to release its Navigate on Pilot (NoP) solution, which allows the vehicle to change lanes on its own, within this year, while acknowledging its self-parking feature was “not as competitive as Tesla’s.”
  • Meanwhile, Xpeng boasts the highest auto-parking success rate among all vehicles available on the market, enabled with a dozen sensors and HD map solutions, and plans to provide its vehicles with an autonomous lane change feature on highways later this year.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen