Electric car startup Byton stepped into the spotlight this past January when it showed off a flashy concept SUV at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show. Now the company is already pulling the cover off of a second concept — a sedan this time, also all-electric — at CES Asia in Shanghai this week, just one day after announcing a new $500 million round of funding.
The concept, named K-Byte, is just a tease of the sedan Byton says it will start manufacturing in 2021. The headlining feature? The company is promising that the car will be capable of Level 4 autonomous driving, according to the scale set by the Society of Automotive Engineers, meaning it could take a person from point A to B without ever requiring that they take (or even be ready to take) control.
That’s a lofty promise, considering no company has delivered anything beyond what’s considered Level 2 technology, also known as advanced driver assistance systems (a la Tesla’s Autopilot, or GM’s Super Cruise). Some companies, like Waymo, are testing self-driving cars that can perform Level 4 functions, but none have deployed anything resembling this tech in a consumer car yet.
Byton’s self-driving tech will be provided by Aurora Innovation, a company started by the former head of Google’s autonomous car program. Aurora has deals with companies like Volkswagen and Hyundai to provide similar capabilities in the coming years. There’s no guarantee Aurora’s tech works out — there’s still more that we don’t know about that company than we do — but it’s a notable partnership for Byton to have hammered out so soon. Byton says it will start testing a fleet of these Aurora-equipped cars by the end of 2020. Its first SUVs, which are only supposed to be Level 3-capable (meaning drivers will sometimes need to take control), are slated to ship by the end of 2019.
One thing Byton is promoting with this concept is that some of its LIDAR sensors will retract into the body of the car when it’s being driven manually. It’s an interesting concept, and a way for Byton to hedge until there’s more feedback and market data on what customers will want from autonomous cars (if the market even goes this way). Right now, companies can either cover a car in exposed, protruding sensors, which increases their visibility and potentially keeps costs down. Or they can work to carefully integrate those sensors into the car’s design so they’re less obtrusive, a move that could affect overall coverage and also wind up being more expensive. Byton’s idea splits the difference.
Beyond that, though, Byton isn’t divulging any of the K-Byte’s specs just yet. But the car will share a lot of the same DNA with the SUV the company showed off earlier this year, CEO and co-founder Carsten Breitfeld tells The Verge.
Breitfeld, who led the the development of the BMW i8 and spent more than a decade as vice president of the BMW Group, says the K-Byte will be built on the same technical platform as the company’s SUV (which Byton is now calling the M-Byte). This means the sedan will have somewhere between 65 to 70 percent of the same parts, he says. That includes, based on the photos Byton released today, the same pillar-to-pillar dashboard screen that grabbed the company’s SUV so many headlines at CES in Las Vegas, as well as the same touchscreen embedded in the steering wheel, and the same headrest screens meant for rear-seat passengers.
It will also likely include some of the same smart technologies that Byton teased with the M-Byte, including facial recognition, user profiles that let you carry your settings from car to car, health tracking, smartphone docks, and more.
The likelihood that this entire shotgun-blast of ideas will make it to production without some culling is low, especially if the K-Byte is going to be anywhere near Byton’s sub-$50,000 target for the SUV. But the features trumpet a clear, if a little loud, message: Breitfeld and his team want Byton to be known as a car company that’s all about bleeding edge tech.
“This [will be] the most advanced product when it comes to smartness,” he says. “It’s a premium car, high quality, very excellent design. But the interior, you will see a lot of space. You see the big screen. You see high-speed connectivity. This is much more advanced than other products. And by the way, it’s a global product. So it will be homologated in Europe, the States, and in China. And this you would not find with anyone else.”
Byton is headquartered in China, is working on a factory there, and much of its funding is from Chinese companies and investors. (FAW Group, a state-owned automaker, is among the latest cohort behind the $500 million investment.) Breitfeld also says that China will be the company’s primary sales market. But Breitfeld is adamant that he considers the company — which also has an office in Munich, Germany, and an R&D center in Silicon Valley — to be more of a global entity than one tied to a specific country.
“This is just the new approach. If you want to come up with a premium car with the latest technology and high-quality path to the market then you have to make use of the resources and people where they are today,” Breitfeld says. “That [Byton’s] rooted in China is very important for us because the Chinese market is our most important market, and the biggest market. But from a global perspective, to be [a] premium [brand], you have to be successful not only in China but in the US and Europe as well.”
Asked why he believes Byton is equipped to take on the car market, especially when other EV startups have struggled to get to production, Breitfeld claims his company has a unique mix of traditional industry know-how and forward-thinking ideas.
“You have to have a team which combines the excellence of the current premium car industry when it comes to engineering, innovation, and car design. You have to combine this excellence with a new approach coming from consumer electronics and the internet when it comes to user experience and interface inside the car,” he says.
“If you look at the other companies, you will find the traditional car companies are obviously very strong on the car part, but they are not so strong on software, connectivity, and user experience,” Breitfeld argues. “Most of the new companies are focusing very much on the internet and user experience part, but they might struggle a bit in the traditional car part. Again, industrializing a car might not be too sexy, but it’s core to your success.”
From afar, this approach — backing up Silicon Valley talent and ideas with established auto industry know-how — isn’t all that different from the plans of fellow Chinese startups with big ambitions, like Faraday Future, or Lucid Motors, or SF Motors, or NIO.
Byton has some of the required pieces in place to try to turn concept cars like the K-Byte into reality. But pulling that off with a new company that already stretches across the globe will require a careful balance, Breitfeld says. Serving different interests in different markets — especially when the money is coming from one place more than any other — has ground the progress of a few of those startups nearly to a halt. (Of those four, only NIO has started shipping a finished car.)
“We have Chinese culture, German culture, American culture. But more than that we have BMW culture, we have Tesla culture, we have Apple, Google,” he says. “This will not stop us, but our biggest challenge as a company is to integrate all those different cultures.”
That and, of course, making the cars themselves. Breitfeld admits there are technical challenges and risks, but says that those are easier to plan against. “We’re absolutely convinced we’re going to make it, and that the passion of all the people in the company is focused on one target: bringing the first car out by the end of next year.”
By: Sean O’Kane, The Verge