Chinese EV startup Byton says it's ready to achieve what seemed unlikely, perhaps even impossible, less than two years ago. The aspiring automaker demonstrated the final production version of its M-Byte SUV at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show on Tuesday, and confirmed plans to bring the premium SUV – and its striking dashboard screen – into production at a newly-completed car plant in Nanjing, China before the end of this year. The SUV offers more than 200 miles of range per load and starts at around $ 45,000 when it is on sale in China in the middle of next year before coming to the US and Europe in 2021.
The completed version of the M-Byte does not look very different from the concept that the startup debuted during its big upcoming party at the Consumer Electronics Show 2018. In a sense, that is a confirmation of the original goal. Byton had no intention of building the worst, fastest or most expensive electric car on the market, unlike many other EV startups that have emerged in recent years. Instead, the company promised something with solid, if not amazing, performance at a reasonably reasonable price tag.
That said, the inside of the M-Byte attracted a lot of attention to Byton, and with good reason. The original concept was equipped with a 48-inch screen that rose like a cam from the dashboard and extends from pillar to pillar. There was also an 8-inch touchscreen in the center of the steering wheel. The company swore up and down that these screens were not just daring ideas that would be thrown away when it was time for production. No, they were meant to be a part of, if not the, defining characteristics of the car. (Byton is actually so horrible on screens that the company revealed it added to it another touchscreen to the SUV at CES this year.)
Co-founder and CEO Daniel Kirchert tells The edge that all these screens remain in the production version. Kirchert says that the only important feature of Byton in the concept that production failed was the idea to use facial recognition to identify who is approaching the car. However, the company has already reduced its dependence on gesture control for the main screen and has added a few more physical buttons. But Kirchert remains proud of the software experience that Byton has built to power the car. "Our user interface and UX are so far ahead of everything else that we see there," says Kirchert.
The entry-level M-Byte will run up to 360 kilometers (224 miles) on a full 72kWh battery, and it comes with a single electric motor mounted on the rear axle with a peak power of 200kW (around 270 hp). Byton will also sell a more expensive four-wheel drive version that draws power from a 95kWh battery pack, which should last approximately 435 kilometers (or approximately 270 miles). The AWD M-Byte has a peak power of 300 kW or around 402 hp. Again, neither version will beat a Tesla Model X or a Porsche Taycan off-the-line, but should fit favorably with cars such as the Tesla Model 3 or the Chevy Bolt.
It is not a total surprise that Byton is now ready to attempt to build a vehicle that largely resembles the concept it showed only 20 months ago. The automotive industry is built around long lead times, so changes are at risk of delay. This meant that the design of the M-Byte had to be largely locked when Byton presented the concept, or that the company should have reduced the production target by the end of 2019.
The other co-founder of Kirchert, Carsten Breitfeld, told The edge at CES this year, working on a compressed schedule was one of the experiences he brought to the table. As head of BMW & # 39; s division, Breitfeld oversaw the design and production of the i8 supercar, which he said took only 38 months "from idea to production".
"That had never happened before," Breitfeld said. "It was in record time."
Breitfeld and Kirchert (who also spent a lot of time with BMW, although he was involved with the automaker's China division) fit this & # 39; startup mentality & # 39; to Byton and the company's 1,600 employees. But that pace has not come without costs, not even at management level. At CES earlier this year, Kirchert described 2018 as the "longest year of (his) life." Breitfeld left Byton a few months later to run another Chinese startup, a sudden move that, according to Kirchert, was a total surprise. (Breitfeld has recently taken on a new position – CEO of struggling EV startup Faraday Future.)
With all the talk about stereotyped startup problems, Byton is certainly not going to do it alone when it enters production. The company announced earlier this year that it was investing in the state-owned First Automobile Works (FAW), the first major automaker in China. What began as a collaboration – in which FAW agreed to help Byton set up his supply chain and solve other logistical problems – has grown into a more committed partnership, which Kirchert says will be explained in more detail in the coming months. FAW is also interested in the platform that Byton has developed (that Byton is already planning to use to power a second vehicle, a sedan known as the K-Byte).
"They respect our independence as a startup and at the same time we can use their strengths," says Kirchert. "It fits really well."
It may seem like it was yesterday that Byton made his CES debut. But even 20 months ago the world of EV startups was very different. Yes, Faraday Future was already in the middle of the first of two major financial crises. But China was only beginning to see a boom in EV startups popping up in the country's provinces, largely driven by government policies and incentives. Now? The government in Beijing arranges many of those subsidies amid a lagging economy and a roaring trade war with the US. Byton may be a startup, but when everything is said and done, the deal with FAW may be more important than what the M-Byte offers customers, when (and if) the SUV starts rolling out to customers.