“We think it was perfect what Steve Jobs said a decade ago, that a revolution of the user interface will change everything,” said Henrik Wenders, marketing VP of China-based automotive startup Byton. “So just like the iPhone put the entire mobile phone industry upside down, we predict that we have to interpret this strategy for the automotive industry.”
Speaking at a CES Asia keynote in Shanghai last month, Wenders was a last-minute stand-in for Byton CEO and cofounder Dr. Carsten Breitfeld, who had apparently lost his voice.
Wenders was joined by Byton president and cofounder Dr. Daniel Kirchert, who performed his segment in what seemed to me to be fluent Mandarin. For some 30 minutes, the duo tag-teamed their respective pitches, with Wenders doing his bit in English, and Kirchert continuing in Mandarin. It wasn’t the best means of conveying a consistent and direct message to the assembled crowd — I had to keep switching my translation headset on and off — but it was impressive nonetheless. And it could well have been an analogical ploy to communicate something more subtle: Byton may be headquartered in China, but the world is very much in its crosshairs.
It’s certainly not a typical setup for a fledgling startup. Byton was founded in 2016 by Breitfeld, formerly of Germany’s BMW, who now serves as the company’s CEO and chair, and Kirchert, another BMW veteran, but who has been based out of China for two decades. That certainly goes some way toward explaining his grasp of the Mandarin tongue.
Under its original name, Future Mobility, Byton raised a $200 million pot in 2017, which was followed by a chunkier $500 million cash injection a few weeks back. It’s the kind of investment that’s really needed to get a car manufacturing startup off the ground.
Byton’s global headquarters and manufacturing hub will be in Nanjing, a city roughly 200 miles west of Shanghai, where a plant has been under construction for the past nine months. It is scheduled to be completed by October 2018 and will be capable of producing up to 300,000 units each year.
Byton also has a vehicle concept and design hub in Munich, Germany. And in December, the company opened its North American HQ in Santa Clara, California. This office will be responsible for “developing intelligent car experiences, autonomous driving, and other cutting-edge technologies,” according to Kirchert. The California base will also serve as the nerve center for the company’s North American market push.
Clearly, Byton is adopting a global approach from the very beginning.
“This setup really allows us, in a short period of time, to enjoy the best of all worlds,” Kirchert said. “The best of German premium car manufacturing, the best of Silicon Valley innovation, and China, which is the best place to run a startup like this.”
Byton was also a major presence at CES Asia, and we’ll no doubt be hearing a hell of a lot more about this company in the coming years.
“Tesla of China”
China is already the No. 1 market for electric vehicles, growing at more than twice the rate of the U.S. in terms of sales. Countless companies are now being labeled as the “Tesla of China,” and Byton has stiff competition from a number of local players, including Nio, which recently unveiled its Eve autonomous and electric concept car and is expected to go into production in 2020.
Byton hopes to have its vehicles on the market before then. It is building premium electric automobiles and a platform that it said will enable it to not only mass-produce cars for the more discerning drivers of today, but to future-proof them against the autonomous vehicles speeding down the pike. But after I had a chance to dig down into the details and sit inside one of the handful of concept cars Byton had on display at CES Asia last month, some key differences emerged between Byton and more established electric-car manufacturers, like Tesla.
“Tesla has been the trendsetter in starting the electric [car] revolution more than 10 years ago, and Byton also wants to build a really great electric car,” Kirchert said. “But our focus is really on making the car a smart UI [user interface]. We believe that’s at the core of getting cars ready for the future of mobility — and also getting them ready for the age of autonomous driving.”
Byton has yet to bring a car to market, but it has already launched two concept cars. At CES in Las Vegas this past January, the company debuted the first of its automobiles — the Byton M-Byte SUV. And at CES Asia in China last month, it pulled the curtain back on the Byton K-Byte sedan.
Cars of the future
On the outside, both cars sport the traditional look and feel of other premium SUVs and sedans, insofar as they have wheels, doors, windows, and the like. The car of our immediate future isn’t something from the Jetsons. The exterior does hint at the car’s future-gazing efforts, however, as you can see here with the lidars mounted on the side of the K-Byte.
But as the saying goes, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Here, the most striking facet of the Byton is the multitude of screens, including its “coast-to-coast” display.
Stretching from left to right beneath the entire windscreen, the 49-inch x 10-inch display is designed for any task that you would normally use such a big screen for — video conferencing, movie watching, and so on.
The goal with this gargantuan screen is to free the user from ever having to take out their smartphone again. Everything they can do with their phone, they can do with their car’s interface. But it also hints at an autonomous future in which human drivers are no longer compulsory. It also seems geared toward the broader artificial intelligence (AI) onslaught that will open doors to more data and information being shared with the driver. And hey, the driver could even watch a movie on the way to work.
“Due to the fact that AI is coming down the road, and much more information will be shared with navigation, we think it’s much more important to have a bigger screen to share this information, without being distracted by looking at a small screen,” Wenders said.
Then there’s a smaller tablet-like display embedded in the middle of the steering wheel, which serves a number of purposes. Given that it sits directly in the driver’s field of vision, it is arguably better for providing visual navigation cues. But it can also serve as a kind of “digital rear-view mirror,” with rear-facing cameras offering a 180-degree blind-spot-free view of what’s going on behind the car. To facilitate this design, the company had to devise a completely new airbag system that isn’t obstructed by the screen.
In the back, there are two additional displays because, well, why not?
“In the Byton, every single seat is equally important,” Wenders said.
The interface is ultimately designed to be the car’s main attraction, and it has been built with both eyes on the future. We’re already seeing a shift in how users interact with interfaces. All the major technology companies — from Amazon, Apple, and Google through to Baidu and Alibaba — are betting on voice being the next big platform. This impending shift hasn’t been lost on the good folks at Byton.
Users will be able to interact with the interface using touch, gestures, or voice. This ensures the transition from touch-screen computing to voice will be as seamless as possible.
“It’s important to us that the user interface is based on simplicity,” Wenders added. “So that is why we’ve integrated all three forms of user interface to make it as convenient as possible.”
Pricing and availability
The cars will cost in the region of 300,000RMB, or $45,000 (USD). Not cheap, but still within a spectrum that will make the cars accessible to millions of geeks. For context, Tesla’s latest Model 3 starts at around $35,000.
Though Byton doesn’t have a full-fledged manufacturing plant up and running yet, it does have an 8,000-square-meter trial facility set up, and it expects to have 100 prototypes ready by the end of 2018. By that point, its main plant in Nanjing should be up and running, with mass production kicking off in early 2019 and cars shipping first to Chinese consumers, followed by the U.S. and Europe in 2020.
Byton is already seeding the ground by embarking on a huge brand-establishing mission. Aside from the hullabaloo around its concept cars, it will also open its first “brand store” in Shanghai later this year, followed by up to 30 such stores across China in 2019. These locations will allow potential customers to try out various experiences, including augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
This is in line with the experience Byton offered at CES Asia, where the company set up a dedicated area next to its prototype cars so anyone could sit inside the vehicle virtually via a head-mounted display.
What’s perhaps most interesting about the company’s pitch is the way it refers to its vehicles as though they’re phones or tablets. At the M-Byte launch in Las Vegas this year, Byton said “it’s not just an electric vehicle, it’s the next-generation smart device.” At CES Asia, it was more of the same.
“Byton’s fundamental position is really to bring together the best of German premium car manufacturing with the best of consumer electronics and position the car as a next-generation smart device,” Kirchert said.
The car’s UI was developed by a team led by former Apple engineer Jeff Chung, who left his position at the Cupertino company last October. At Apple, he developed “next-generation Mac products,” according to his LinkedIn profile.
“They are using a completely different mindset to develop this kind of experience — the mindset of a technology and internet company, not one of a car company,” Kirchert added.
With the level of investment that is currently being thrown at autonomous vehicles by technology companies and automotive firms, there is no escaping one simple truth: The role of the human driver is going to change. Some might say it’s another victory for the machines, while others will position it as a step forward for road safety.
Smart automobile technology was one of the big trends at CES Asia this year. General Motors’ (GM) Cadillac unveiled its new Super Cruise technology, which it touted as the first “true hands-free driving technology for the highway,” and Super Cruise is expected to ship in China initially with the company’s upcoming Cadillac CT6.
“Every year, 1.25 million people die in car crashes, and more than 2 million people are injured around the world,” said Lyndon Lie, chief engineer of the Cadillac CT6. “Human error is a major contributing factor in 94 percent of crashes. General Motors, through its vehicles and technologies, has a responsibility to help alleviate this and other important societal concerns. GM’s vision is a world with zero crashes. Super Cruise is a major step forward on our evolutionary path toward that worthy objective.”
Byton has partnered with a number of big-name brands in preparation for this electrified, autonomous future. Partners include Bosch, Baidu, and Silicon Valley self-driving car startup Aurora. Byton claims that it will have a level 3 autonomous car on the market by the end of next year, though its cars will sport level 4-grade sensors so that they’re good to go when the time comes. “Our target by 2020 is to have a fully functional level 4 fleet on the street,” Kirchert noted.
These plans bring us back to the car’s interface, which is very much designed with autonomous driving in mind.
“As soon as we go to autonomous driving mode, we can do a lot of things with our time in the car, for example watch a movie or make a video call at work,” Kirchert added. “But even in the next few years, when drivers have to drive themselves, this will still generate completely new experiences — just imagine having big-screen navigation.”
So there you have it — cars as we know them are on the way out. They will soon be giant extensions of our smartphones, albeit capable of transporting us hundreds of miles on a single charge.
“Our cars are really tailor-made for the nineties-plus generation,” Kirchert said. “That’s a digital generation that grows up using a smartphone from childhood. And they want their car to be a smart device.”