Continuing our in-depth interview series on international mobility startup Byton, we spoke with founder and CEO Dr. Carsten Breitfeld, AKA Carsten, in Santa Clara, California.
I visited the company at one of its global headquarters and asked him, in a few more words than this, what it takes to run a global mobility startup. I also asked about the company’s vision, culture, and challenges.
Byton caught everyone’s attention with its large in-car display, replacing more traditional dashboards. There was a lot of suspicious chatter about whether it was a marketing gimmick. However, the company showed us how useful and functional the display is.
The company has also made steady progress on artificial intelligence (AI) and security, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Running a global startup is not for the faint of heart. After a casual three weeks spent between China, Europe, and the US, Carsten was a little tired. But that didn’t take much from his dynamism and charisma.
Specifically, I asked how he tackles the timezone constraints with teams spread out globally. How do you get Munich’s design team coordinated with the Chinese sites and the US digital and artificial intelligence (AI) team?
For this to happen, a coherent vision was created from the start. Carsten said setting the culture right from the get-go was crucial for Byton. Three years later, what continuously surprises me is that everyone looks happy at Byton. You won’t find the traditional burned-out startup employees there. While I’m not saying Byton is perfect, unless it locks its disgruntled employees in closets when we visit, everyone looks positively engaged.
Creating A Positive Work Environment
Obviously, any work environment needs to be positive. But in practice, dealing with investor pressures and daily management constraints means employees go through never-ending hoops of expectations. Sometimes they materialize, other times the end of the tunnel is never in sight. Carsten said his biggest mission and challenge was to create a unique open culture at Byton. He insisted on having employees be engaged in that vision. You can hear how he articulates that point in the video below.
Modern offices today are open, engaging everyone to interact. It wasn’t so two decades ago. The Byton headquarters in Munich, Germany, and Santa Clara, USA, are open and free-flowing. My last visit to the Santa Clara headquarters showed coders mingling with designers mixing with automotive engineers. Better interaction means catching potential problems sooner and exchanging different points of view from other departments.
Creating A Mobility Future
Creating a viable and feasible vision is complicated. In Byton’s case, it means producing an autonomous electric vehicle (AV). The K-Byte is the beginning of that vision. It will be produced late 2019 starting at about $45,000. Anticipating future needs before they happen and convincing investors is key and something Carsten feels Byton excels at. But what are those needs exactly?
According to Byton, we will need a seamless mobility experience on highly connected platforms. Byton is working on AI with face and voice recognition, fast data transmission, and security. This means any Byton globally can recognize you and upload your settings. No fiddling with settings, hunting for your favorite entertainment, or adjusting other settings when you hop into another Byton AV.
The M-Byte AI is already impressive. The test ride at Pebble Beach showed promising AI features and handling potential. Two months later, hand gestures activate the generous screen and feel ready for the public. The public’s positive reaction at the 2018 LA Automobility and LA Auto Show test ride shows Byton is doing a good job. As a Mediterranean by birth, I communicate with my hands. What’s impressive is that this didn’t phase K-Byte, which only registered the driver’s hand gestures, not mine.
Carsten understands EVs are more computers on wheels than cars. After a decade of covering EVs and AVs, it’s refreshing to hear this from a CEO. This is where more traditional carmakers need to catch up. It’s why they need to overhaul their outdated business model. Carsten says we need to move away from a focus on making cars and focus more on modern mobility and vehicles and mobile technology providers. Carsten says Byton is leading on the AI and security front. We’ll get a better sense of that when consumers start getting the cars.
There were two big things Carsten said that caught my attention. First, the car itself isn’t the bulk of the business model. They sit doing nothing 80 to 97% of the time. A modern electric mobility platform needs to be constantly mobile. This will reduce traffic congestions and ideally fatalities.
When I asked about autonomous perceptions, he said China is ahead since many use ridesharing.
The K-Byte’s Feel, Handling, & Ergonomics
I’m not a big fan of CUVs or SUVs. If the name of the game is efficiency and lessening our carbon footprint, smaller vehicles make more sense. But Byton makes a solid case for an electric CUV. The K-Byte configuration I tested felt perfect for anyone needing a mobile interior.
I often turn down local interviews in Los Angeles because traffic congestion takes out a day from my schedule. With a Byton M-Byte, however, I could actually pick up a client to conduct interviews inside. It’s an ideal mobile office. The M-Byte will be level 3 autonomous and the K-Byte level 4. At level 5, we’ll be more productive. My personal hope is to have a choice to drive or not to drive. Byton seems intent on making that happen.
Can Byton Answer Our Upcoming Electric Mobility Needs?
If I had a crystal ball, I would be making billions of dollars on Wall Street. Even then, I’m not sure I would want that task. But so far, Byton has done a great job finding the right people and integrating them into a coherent vision. What impresses me most about Byton is its right mix of industry experts working under the mobility flag. Imagine designers, hackers, and coders from inside and outside the automotive industry mixing with automotive engineers? That’s what Byton has done very well so far.
Our next Byton interviews are with Chad Harrison, Vice President of Product Line Management, and David Twohig, Vice President and Chief Vehicle Engineer. Also, stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Abe Chen, Vice President of Digital Technology on security, a vast topic.