Byton: ready for Europe, but is Europe ready?
A few months after the CES reveal in Las Vegas, Chinese disrupter Byton shows its awe-inspiring concept to a selection of European media during the Milan Design Week. If anything, it draws attention with its mega-wide screen, which spawns far more controversy than the fact that it will be half the price of a Tesla Model X or Jaguar i-Pace.
“This is the next-generation smart device. Its technologies will give you time to connect, time to relax, time to dream, and simply: time to be”, promised Byton’s VP Marketing, Henrik Wenders, during the introductory speech at Casa d’Aste Blindarte in Milan’s fashionable Brera district, the throbbing heart of all things 'design'.
Next to Benoit Jacob, Byton's chief designer, he is one of the top BMW i talents to have joined the Chinese start-up, following the lead of their former colleague Carsten Breitfeld, who co-founded Byton in 2016. This ex BMW Group Vice President united automotive brains with a couple of AI wizards from Google and Apple and a few hundred million euros in Chinese capital to create something the world has not seen before: a Smart Intuitive Vehicle that puts 'being' before 'driving'.
Driving smartphone, or connected car?
Indeed, Byton is not just a car brand. It is the combination of two universes, i.e. automotive and IT. Its ultimate goal is putting driving time to good use by means of a highly digitalised, smart and proactive car. The main interface is the flabbergastingly wide screen that spans the entire dashboard (125 cm x 25 cm) and is called Shared Experience Display. Indeed, it is to be used by all occupants, not just the driver.
You can talk to it via a voice assistant (Google Alexa), or move the cursor by hand movements that are scanned by a central camera (Byton Air Touch). In theory, you can display any information you can find on the internet. The car also monitors your health status, for instance to suggest taking over the wheel when you are feeling drowsy, agitated or unwell – or maybe just distracted by the plethora of moving images that cry for your eyeballs’ attention.
Autonomous driving: sine qua non?
Giving the driver back time otherwise lost by allowing him to continue what he usually does while at the office – join online meetings, write and read e-mails, download and manage files, and so on – that sounds like a dream come true for many company car drivers who lose hours of time per week in traffic. But many find this dream will turn into a safety nightmare if the car will not drive by itself, as demonstrated by the number of agitated reactions triggered by a Fleet Europe post on Linked In.
Byton is indeed focused on getting the car level 4-autonomous by the early 2020s. It is relying on Californian start-up Aurora – just like Hyundai and VW, incidentally – to test and develop the self-driving technologies. Byton claims to master level 3 at the moment, i.e. autonomous motorway driving, but it actually wants to become one of the first companies to get a level 4 car on the road.
Be that as it may, Europe is unlikely to allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel and their eyes off the road by the time Byton launches on the old continent, in late 2020. Moreover, if autonomous driving is legally not allowed, one could presume that the law will also forbid the use of the giant screen unless the car is stationary. Still, Benoit Jacob said during the event in Milan that "Byton is in close contact with the authorities and the system allows enough flexibility to comply with local standards - it's just a matter of software."
Also, the screen is divided into three parts and it stands to reason that distracting images in the middle and on the passenger side could be hidden from the driver by using dual view technology, which allows people to see different content depending on the angle they look at the screen. Moreover, for night driving, a Saab-like black panel function should be imaginable.
Target: Jaguar i-Pace & Tesla Model X
One would almost forget that this car also needs a powertrain to perform one of its key functions: getting you to your destination. Logically, the prismatic lithium ion batteries are sourced in China, without further specification. Customers can choose between a 200 kW-strong rear-wheel drive model with a 71-kWh battery pack, yielding 400 km of range (NEDC) and a dual-motor all-wheel drive version with 200 + 150 kW and a 95-kWh pack for 520 km of range. Like with its competitors, you can top up the batteries from 0 to 80 percent in about 30 minutes.
When you step inside, you cannot help but see resemblances with the Model X, not least because of the individual jet-like seats. The Byton concept has no falcon doors, however, but conventional ones that open through facial recognition. The Citroën C4-inspired fixed-centre steering wheel is remarkably minimalistic and contains a touch display to manage the vehicle’s main functions. The only real physical command is the indicator and windscreen wiper stalk.
Designed in Munich, engineered in LA, made in China
Byton sees itself as a premium brand rooted in China that has a global reach. Its global headquarters, manufacturing base and R&D centre are located in Nanjing, China, while its North American HQ, devoted to intelligent car experience, autonomous driving, whole vehicle integration and other advanced technologies, is based in the Silicon Valley. The company's vehicle concept and design centre is located in Munich. Today, Byton employs nearly 400 people.
The company raised 320 million dollars last year and wants production to kick off by the end of 2019. It expects to build 100,000 units per annum – a number it expects to triple by 2022. China will be served first, followed by the U.S. Europeans will have to wait until the second half of 2020 to take delivery of their Byton, the starting price of which would be around $45,000/€40,000.
Picture copyright: Dieter Quartier, 2018