Nicolas Zart, CleanTechnica’s under assistant West Coast promo man, spent last weekend hobnobbing with the swells at the annual Pebble Beach concours event. While there, he got a chance to get up close and personal with two prototypes from Byton — the M-Byte electric SUV that goes into production late next year and the K-Byte electric sedan with Level 4 self-driving prowess scheduled for release after that.
While at Pebble Beach, Byton founder Daniel Kirchert told Tech Crunch that the company will complete 100 pre-production prototypes of the M-Byte at its factory in Nanjing by the end of 2018. Ten of them will be shipped to America, where they will be fitted with Level 4 self-driving technology developed by Aurora. The first M-Byte vehicles will be Level 2 capable — equivalent to the current Tesla Autopilot system. But with Aurora’s input, Level 3 and later Level 4 functionality is planned.
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Aurora was founded by several autonomous vehicle superstars. Sterling Anderson was in charge of the Autopilot team at Tesla as well as chief program manager for the Tesla Model X. Chris Urmson headed the self-driving car program at Google from the early days when attempting to win the DARPA competition until Google became Alphabet and the autonomous program morphed into Waymo. Drew Bagnell is an associate professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, repository of some of the brightest robotics and autonomous car engineers in the world.
It’s hard to imagine a team to lead an autonomous driving startup with better credentials than those three possess. Aurora just completed a $500 million funding round led by CATL, the Chinese battery manufacturer that will also supply the batteries for Byton automobiles. The M-Byte will offer buyers a choice of a 70 kWh battery with 250 miles of range or a 90 kWh battery with 325 miles of range. Dual motor versions will also be available.
The M-Byte will go on sale first in China. The car is a technological tour de force that features a giant wall-to-wall touchscreen covering the entire dashboard as well as a separate touchscreen mounted in the steering wheel. The many functions of the car can be controlled by voice commands and hand gestures. Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant is also available to assist the driver and passengers.
Byton calls the M-Byte a “smart intuitive vehicle.” Among other wonders, it will monitor the driver’s heart rate, weight, oxygen saturation, or blood pressure. It also offers face recognition technology.
Why it would not also check for blood alcohol level is a mystery. If it can do all those other things, determining that someone is too drunk to drive should be a piece of cake. While automakers go on at great length about how self-driving systems save lives, they all seem scared to death to devise anti-drunk driving technology that would eliminate a major factor in motor vehicle injuries and deaths.
Nicolas Zart reports many of the people he spoke with at Pebble Beach were greatly interested in the Byton vehicles they saw. According to Autocar, prices in Europe will begin at €37,500, which should translate to a price in the US of under $40,000. (About the price of Chevy Bolt, in other words.) Now, if the company can actually get them into production and on sale at that price in a timely fashion, they may have a sales hit on their hands.