I’m still bullish on Byton, but with caution about the direction the company is taking. Although similar to the original target of delivering autonomous electric vehicles (EV) globally, the last round of investments gives more food for thought.
In the meantime, the Frankfurt auto show confirmed that the company is still moving ahead despite a 6 month delay. And, anyway, how many delays have we witnessed in the automotive industry over a century? Cars get out there, eventually.
After a year of seeing the company develop its internal autonomous and security technology, we now see Byton is solidifying its internal structure after Carsten Breitfeld’s departure, one of the original founder. More to come on this, as we were also recently at the Faraday Future media day where we caught up with Carsten. The question now boils down to: would anyone wait 6 months for a company to iron out the kinks and make sure the quality is on par with global expectations? Absolutely, especially after seeing too many products rushed out the door to bellyflop. But what is really happening with Byton anyway?
Byton At The Frankfurt Auto Show — A Show Stopper
If you need to gauge the potential success of a product, go to the launch ceremonies and watch how professionals and the public at large react to the product or service. Leave aside the usual enthusiasm of the company and focus on show-goers. Byton unveiled the 99.9% production-ready M-Byte in Frankfurt. It is almost a level 3 automated electric vehicle (AV). What you might not have seen, however, were industry professionals gathering around the M-Byte. It was an uninterruptible flow and exuded much enthusiasm. In fact, Byton has become a 101 casebook on how startups come to life and eventually deliver. We’ll wait another year for prognosis on that last matter.
The white elephant in the room is how did one of the founders leaving Byton earlier this year truly affect the company? And what are the repercussions? Potential dirty little secrets of the automotive industry aside — and there are plenty — Byton is staying the course, doubling down on quality, and solidifying its internal structure. The M-Byte is as close as it was to its original design, mostly modifying a few interior elements for better ergonomics.
Officially, the extra 6 months the company is giving itself is to deliver the quality expected worldwide for the M-Byte. After talking at length with Daniel Kirchert, Byton CEO, David Twohig, Byton CTO, and many others, it sounds like a reasonable wait. So far, 100 M-Bytes have been built and tested for hot & cold weather validation and global crash testing. The focus is now on quality and bringing the Chinese manufacturing plant up to speed with global quality expectations.
So, why is Byton insisting on Chinese manufacturers instead of going where European and Asian carmakers look for established quality? Byton chose to work with local Chinese companies near its production site, which explains why there have been so few delays. According to everyone I spoke with at Byton, the company feels confident they will meet their international quality target.
The Frankfurt auto show proved one thing. Byton is on everyone’s lips. In fact, it is the go-to startup to reference these days, at least among the professionals we heard.
Byton had a smaller footprint to bigger OEMs with less fanfare, and the company drew much more interest. The flow never seemed to stop. This became even more apparent when the great Herbert Diess from VW came, looked, inspected, and smiled as he sat in the M-Byte.
Perhaps the reactions in the faces looking at the M-Byte’s interior demonstration were the most telling. Frowning at first and arms folded, I saw most faces relax, get curious, and eventually show a “I want this new technology now.” In particular, the crowd seemed impressed with the M-Byte’s hand movement recognition that can controls most of the multimedia system. The M-Byte uses more conventional control systems as well, such as a display between the front two seats. Also, if touching or making hand gestures is not your thing, you can simply talk to the car for almost the same controls. The new interior’s rearranged sensors neatly find their place inside, thanks to Benoit Jacob’s amazing design team. Overall, they created a unique experience inside that drew the interest of many.
Daniel told me Byton is focusing on the next step startups face, that of laying down solid foundations to morph into a full-fledged company. To date, Byton has attracted top-notch automotive, design, and IT professionals. My conversations with Mark Duschene, who oversees the gargantuan Nanjing manufacturing plant showed me how the company once again found the right person for the job. I will finish my interview with him to give you an idea of what Byton is trying to achieve.
Byton M-Byte Ride Feel, Screen Space, & More
The M-Byte feels great inside, and it retains its original shared display. It is a unique experience inside that introduces a much needed change for automotive interiors. If you think about it, there has not been much change with interior design of automobiles. It’s much the same as it was 100 years ago. There is a traditional driver’s seat with an adjacent passenger seat. Sedans get 2 to 3 more seats behind and even bigger cars add another row further behind. 100 years later, all seats face forward. While practical and conventional for carmakers, we don’t always want to face what the driver sees.
SUVs were supposed to change interior design and open a second family room. I have yet to see home family rooms terminally stuck in the same configuration. This is where EVs, and particularly AVs, open interior space to allow for greater passenger freedom. The M-Byte’s two front seats swivel 10 degrees, opening a wider floor plan that doubles up as an office meeting place. The true potential is to turn these AVs into mobile conference platforms or simply places for “hanging out.”
The rest of the progress made on the M-Byte has been around the ride feel, which we’ll cover in our next article regarding our interview with CTO David Twohig.
Byton Confirms Some of the M-Byte Performance
The M-Byte will be available in two configurations, as Kyle Field noted in his previous article on the M-Byte. There will be a long-range version and a standard one available with one or two electric motors. The long-range version packs 95 kilowatt-hours of usable capacity from CATL batteries, giving it a 435 kilometer (270 mile) range per charge on the WLTP cycle. The M-Byte has a 200 kilowatt Bosch permanent magnet synchronous motor in back and one 150 kilowatt motor in the front.
Fast charging goes from 0–80% in around 35 minutes on a 150 kW charging system, giving the M-Byte 100 kilometers (60 miles) of range in just 10 minutes. The European version can be equipped with an optional onboard 22 kW AC charger, as well as an 11 kW charger. The entry-level M-Byte will have a 360 kilometer (224 mile) range per charge on the WLTP cycle using the same 200 kW from electric motors and 268 horsepower.
Kyle Field rightfully noted, as well, that this makes Byton the only EV maker a battery company is investing.
Wrapping Up Byton and the Upcoming M-Byte
Will the M-Byte make it to Europe and North America? According to Byton, yes. So far what we know is that the M-Byte will be available in early 2021 in the Chinese market and its European and North American deliveries follow within the same year. You can read more on the investment here.
It’s fair to say Byton attracted a lot of attention at the Frankfurt auto show. It has become a reference in the EV/AV industry. With an unending flow of interest, I believe it must have been embarrassing for other companies hailing “go electric” signs but only displaying hybrids.
Is Byton the next Apple? It’s too early to say, and we’ll have to wait to see the repercussions from the last investors. The next 8 months will show whether it can truly deliver globally or only focus on the Chinese market. Time and investors can either complete the work the Byton team is doing or restrict it. I can’t question the expertise nor the goodwill of the Byton team. The concerns lingering that I heard were about the new FAW investors and their demands, which have not been publicly made. I’m always cautious when it comes to investors and their sometimes outrageous and uninformed demands on the industry.
Is Byton out of the woods headed to the finish line? It might not be out of the woods yet, but it has forged a solid path forward. The next 8 to 9 months will be crucial as it gets ready to hit the road next summer. It’s hard to criticize a company that came out of nowhere two years ago and managed to build an impressive manufacturing plant, a production-ready car, and is opening up its interior to our needs, not those of the industry. From 2018 to 2020, Byton delivered all of this in 30 months, something no other company has done to date. Next, time will tell.
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