Chinese startup Byton showed off a near-ready model of its M-Byte electric SUV that swaps a traditional dashboard for a four-foot digital screen.
The zero-emission vehicle, which also has a touchscreen mounted in the center of the steering wheel, appeared this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Byton first unveiled a concept for the SUV last year at CES. The company says it is now “80 to 90 percent representative” of the production model it expects to show next year.
The Nanjing, China-based company has announced plans for its first three vehicles: the M-Byte SUV, the K-Byte luxury sedan revealed in concept form at CES Asia in June, and an unnamed, seven-passenger, minivan-like vehicle.
“The disruptive element is not the electric drivetrain,” said Byton President Daniel Kirchert, who headed Infiniti’s China operations before co-founding the company with a former BMW executive 28 months ago. “It’s that we want to change how you spend your time in the car.”
The M-Byte will have a 325-mile range, charge 80 percent of its battery in 30 minutes and come in all-wheel drive. The interior on display at CES featured a 48-inch screen, a 7-inch tablet embedded in the steering wheel and an 8-inch touch pad in the center console. Its front seats rotate inward 12 degrees for more legroom and better social experience.
“You can actually stretch your legs,” Kirchert said from the driver’s seat during a demonstration for Trucks.com.
Ready for autonomy
Though it may be years before legislation and infrastructure enable self-driving cars, M-Byte will come equipped for autonomous driving, according to Kirchert. In the meantime, the concept on display featured a bright, expansive cabin, premium upholstery and more digital display space than any vehicle on the market.
“Even if you have zero autonomy, it’s still a great car,” Kirchert said. “People look at it and think it’s $70,000 or $80,000.”
The high-definition display dominating the dashboard shows driving information and other data within the driver’s sight lines. The system will be able to track driver and passenger behavior to “provide intuitive support” for tasks including online shopping, calendar reminders and battery charging.
Eventually, the SUV will use machine learning to perform a host of services, from video conferencing to heart-rate monitoring. Over-the-air updates will keep its software current.
There also will be a built-in virtual assistant. For example, it will be able to make a dinner recommendation for a couple squabbling over where to eat. Mary wants fish tacos; Peter wants a ribeye steak. The system will consider their preferences, recommend a restaurant and make a reservation for two.
“This leads to less stress, fewer distractions and a higher quality of life,” said Abe Chen, Byton’s vice president of digital technology.
The system can be activated by voice and gesture control, as well as facial recognition. Drivers and passengers will receive a “Byton ID” that scans their faces to store personal preferences from seating position to music.
“The Byton M-Byte could become the most important device in your digital life,” said Chief Executive Carsten Breitfeld, who launched the program for the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid coupe.
Byton expects the first M-Bytes to roll off the assembly line in Nanjing just 39 months after launch, an impressive clip for an automotive startup and a year or so faster than a legacy automaker’s traditional product cycle. It put its first prototypes on the road in China in August.
“It brings the smartphone moment to mobility,” said Breitfeld, who holds that Byton’s cars will influence transportation the way the Apple iPhone has revolutionized communication. The company’s name derives from the phrase “bytes on wheels.”
All this for …
Starting at $45,000, the China-made M-Byte will compete with the Tesla Model 3 sedan as well as with gas-engine SUVs including the BMW X3, Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC, according to executives.
“This is the sweet spot, price-pointwise,” Kirchert said.
The K-Byte is expected to go into production in 2021, with the three-row vehicle to follow in 2023. Byton plans to cut costs by sharing parts among the three models.
Instead of selling the vehicles through a dealership network, Byton will open stores like electric vehicle-makers Tesla and Polestar. The first opens in Shanghai next week, with more than two dozen additional locations in the pipeline.
Though the fast-growing China market has spawned several electric vehicle startups over the past few years, Byton is the first to announce a global launch. The startup has hired executives, engineers and developers from Tesla, Google and Apple in its quest to create a premium, affordable electric vehicle with international reach.
Kirchert attributes its success to capitalizing on the specific strengths of its geographic footprint, with manufacturing headquartered in China and research and development in Silicon Valley and Munich.
“We try to make use of the best of all places,” he said. “If we didn’t do it like this, we never would have been able to build it so fast.”