Byton: Two German Expat’s Chinese Electric Vehicle Dream

At the 2018 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition this year, new car manufacturers Nio, Byton, Weltmeister and Singulato had their new production cars on display to rival the traditional car manufacturers.

Among them, the most eye-catching is Byton located between two traditional luxury brands of Lincoln and Jaguar Land Rover. Byton’s exhibition stand, however, drew the biggest crowd.

Byton displayed the Byton Concept, a concept car which also appeared at the 2018 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January. Byton CEO Carsten Breitfeld says that although it is a concept car, it will have little differences with the production version. “We only need to change about 10 percent of the Byton Concept to make it fit for production.”

Technologies for intelligent vehicles and connected cars are penetrating the entire automotive industry. They are changing the current vehicle forms to create spaces and products better suited for human needs. Among the new car manufacturers that emphasize intelligence, Byton is definitely one of the most innovative and bold.

The Chinese car dream from Germany

Since 2014, there has been a wave of new energy cars manufacturing in China. TMTPost once estimated that there are about 100 new car projects in China, represented by internet companies, entrepreneurs in traditional automotive companies, and components companies.

What’s special about Byton is that it is founded by an all-foreigners team, representative of the global influence of the new car manufacturing movement. Dr. Daniel Kirchert, the president and co-founder of Byton, once served as Infiniti’s managing director in China. Byton CEO Carsten Breitfeld previously worked at BMW for 20 years, holding top management positions in the departments of chassis development, powertrain development and corporate strategy. He was also the head of BMW’s i8 vehicle program.

Since 2015, I started thinking about starting up a business and building a car that’s better than the i8,

Breitfled says.

Around the same time, the Chinese government was promoting and supporting energy transformation and new energy vehicles. Capital from various fields poured into the car manufacturing industry. Byton was founded in March 2016 and focuses on the production of high-end electric cars. In January 2017, Byton signed a strategic cooperation framework agreement with Nanjing Economic and Technological Development Zone to invest 11.07 billion yuan ($1.8B) to establish its new factory and global headquarters in Nanjing. Byton’s first production is a mid-sized SUV priced at around 300,000 yuan ($47,500). Byton also has established R&D centers in Munich and Silicon Valley.

“Byton is a global brand rooted in China,” says Breitfeld, who told reporters they wanted to establish a car manufacturing company in China for three reasons:

  • “First, China needs an electric power system to solve future environment problems, and the Chinese government is advancing greening programs.
  • Second, entrepreneurial spirits are high in China. Chinese people are very willing to take risks and also willing to invest and participate in environmental protection.
  • Third, China is still developing rapidly. Whether it is Nanjing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen, when I leave and come back a few weeks later, I see a lot of progress like the completion of new buildings. But even if I leave Munich for a year, everything is the same when I go back.”

Now, Byton has realized deep localization in China. In addition to building a factory in Nanjing and setting up its headquarters there, Byton has also accepted investments from well-known Chinese companies such as China Harmony Auto Holding Limited, and Fullshare Holdings.

In the soon to be completed Series B round, Byton welcomed FAW Group, a Chinese state-owned automotive manufacturing company, as one of their investors. The two parties will begin cooperations in the areas of product development, production, sales and services.

Byton has been growing in full swing. In the past two years since its establishment, Byton made great progress in financing, supply chains and factory production, and has finalized its schedule for mass production. According to TMTPost, the first Byton SUV will be available in 2019, and the next generation of sedans and minivans are expected to be launched in 2021 and 2022, with target markets that include China, the United States and Europe.

The first mass-produced car comes in two versions: one with 200kW (400NM torque) rear drive motor and another with a 350kW (710NM torque) front and rear dual-motor combination.

The corresponding battery options are as follows: the rear drive version uses a 71 kWh battery pack capable of 400 kilometers (250 miles) on a single charge. The four-wheel drive version uses a 95 kWh battery pack capable of 520 kilometers (323 miles) on a single charge. Under the quick charge mode, a 30 minute session can charge 80 percent of the battery.

Breitfeld, who had his start in supercars, once considered building Byton into a brand with great performance. “But there are so many irreconcilable contradictions between supercars and family cars on the user experience front,” says Breitfeld. This directly determined the brand’s strategy: focus on one consumer group, cater to their needs, and build a car that delivers excellent digital and intelligent experiences.

Breitfeld believes what the next generation of car consumers care about is “how well they can enjoy entertainment and social apps in the car.” The combination of this demand and the maturation of self-driving technology will be a huge business opportunity.

As a result, the SUV model and concept car which drew so much attention as the auto show, has a 50-inch full-size screen covering its entire dashboard and a driver’s touchscreen in the middle of the steering wheel to demonstrate the fully digital experience.

What does the next generation of intelligent interactivity look like?

In June 2007, the first iPhone was born, overthrowing the era of Nokia phones with physical buttons. “Large-screen interactive experiences have become a trend in the new era of consumer electronics. Today, Byton is going to meet consumer demand in the era of mobile intelligence. We will improve the large screen interactions in the car to perfection,” says Kirchert.

Many people in the industry pointed out that whatever people can do in their car, they can just do it on their phones. To this, Kirchert responds, “When people go out, they use mobile phones. When in the office, they use laptops. When watching movies at home, they use TVs. The diverse intelligent terminals have constructed more interesting ways of life. These intelligent screens all have different uses and do not completely replace one and another.”

For Kirchert, this is the opportunity for a full-screen interactive experience. He says, “The full screens in cars can allow for the display, selection, and search of more important information. It could also present more complete real-time navigation information than mobile phones.” In addition, in terms of safety, a full dashboard screen is better than a mobile phone screen because it prevents users from lowering their heads, becoming distracted and thus increasing risks.

Although the screen is large, Byton also logically divided it into different functional areas with the center control screen further divided into three sections.

The left side displays driving information, including speed, power and other states. Byton cars are equipped with facial recognition, and the driver information will also be displayed in the left side of the screen.

The central part shows GPS navigation. Kirchert says that this screen will to a large extent replace mobile phones. Byton will collaborate with mainstream Internet companies and to equip cars with localized Internet products as well.

The right side of the screen displays entertainment and communication information, which are not core needs.

Byton also provides gesture control technology to complement the futuristic design. Drivers could use five simple gestures to control the central screen. The 8-inch touchscreen in the steering wheel replacing the traditional buttons also allows the driver to adjust different elements inside the vehicle, including temperature, lighting, seating, air conditioning, volume and more, through a touch operation.

The car interior is recognized as the best place for voice interactive applications. In certain markets outside of China, Byton has already teamed up with Amazon to integrate the Alexa voice assistant into their in-car voice control system.

In China, Byton partnered with Baidu to integrate Apollo, Baidu‘s autonomous driving platform, into the vehicle’s AI system. They will jointly develop functions including voice assistance and image recognition.

Self-driving and the trillion-yuan scenarios

The Byton Concept also features a 12-degree left-right rotation in its front-row seats, which is rare in the history of automobile design. This design has a profound implication.

The front seat rotation function may not be used in the short term, but this design represents the future of the automobile digital experience. First, Byton positioned rear air conditioning system up in the front, so the space between two front seats is empty. This empty space allows the front seats to rotate inward 12 degrees, allowing people in the front row to conveniently communicate with each other in the era of self-driving. Moreover, people in the back seats can see the full screen in the front.

This design transforms the car into a miniature living room in the era of intelligent driving. The large dashboard screen plays the role of a TV in the living room.

“This design is more applicable when driverless cars are available,” Kirchert says. The time freed by driverless technology requires a proactive approach to new opportunities. When four or five people are confined inside a driverless car for some time, they will have a lot of unexpected social possibilities.

The market behind this is at the trillion-yuan level.

Byton will mass produce its first SUV in 2019 equipped with Level 3 autonomous driving functions. Byton has reached a strategic partnership with Aurora, an unmanned driving technology company, to realize Level 4 autonomous driving capabilities in vehicles launching in 2020 and beyond.

Realize profitability by learning from traditional car manufacturers

Creating high-quality products quickly is only the first step, realizing profits and surviving under the regular business operations are the core competences. Breitfeld, who once worked for BMW, has a well-thought-out plan.

“Tesla is not profitable because it doesn’t follow the wisdom of traditional car manufacturing,” he says, “To make a profit, you need to achieve certain sales first. We need a technology platform, and to develop multiple products on the same platform. Therefore, we only need to invest in one platform. As the capacity increases, costs will be reduced. This is how Audi, BMW, and Porsche maintained high profits for more than a century.”

Byton plans to launch a mid-sized SUV priced around 300,000 yuan ($47,500) in 2019, competing with the Audi Q5. Byton will release another two cars in addition.

The second car is a sedan, whose length is between the BMW 3 series and the BMW 5 series.

The third product will be a minivan for two-children families in China. The three products are built on the same platform, using 60 percent of the same parts.

Currently, the mass-production of Byton’s first car is already in progress. In early April, Byton’s pilot workshop was completed in Nanjing. Over the next few months, prototypes will be produced there and be used for qualification applications and various tests. The four processing workshops of stamping, welding, coating and assembly are expected to be completed in October this year.

In the fourth quarter of this year, Byton will open its first store in Shanghai. Future stores will be established in China, the United States and Europe with the help of local retail partners. On April 25, Byton made pre-orders available for employees for the first time and will open sales to the general public in the second half of this year.

In 2018, the new model of car manufacturing has become a formidable force. Car manufacturing by internet companies, entrepreneurs in the traditional automotive industry, and components companies all accelerated their development and compete with each other for capital, talent and in production progress. Byton, a new car manufacturing project in China with a foreign founding team, has undoubtedly injected a combination of global technology philosophy and traditional automobile technology into the new car manufacturing industry.

This article originally appeared in tmtpost and was translated by Pandaily.