A brand new smart car from Byton has made its global debut at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, taking a bold new approach to smart mobility and the age of autonomous driving.
You don’t have to be a technology professional or enthusiast to be constantly reminded of the electric car revolution that is rolling slowly but inevitably onwards. Tesla’s regularity in the media has made it a household name, synonymous with the electric vehicle and battery technology.
Lesser known Byton has made a splash at CES 2018 though, showing that it has the product, the funding and the experience behind it, to disrupt the sector’s major players. It’s taking the modernisation of the driving experience far beyond what powers the motor.
The distinguishing feature of Byton’s car is its Shared Experience Display and how the user interacts with it. The full-width, curved screen replaces the centre console, enabling content to be shared with other passengers.
As well as voice recognition and touch control, features found in many cars available today, Byton is equipped with biometric identification and gesture control (the latter novel to them). Proprietary Air Touch sensors enable both front and rear passengers to control the display.
The Byton Life Cloud Platform allows you to link your devices’ apps to the display, for both work and leisure activities. The car can also adjust services and configurations to suit each user’s preferences, such as seat positioning.
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The Byton digital lounge
Byton refers to this connected, multimedia experience as a ‘digital lounge’. The car’s front seats rotate to face each other and enable a more sociable layout. Much of this functionality sounds superfluous (not to mention distracting) until you start to imagine the day when Byton will be able to drive itself, unaided, on public roads.
At present, features such as videos are disabled while driving, but it is fitted with all the sensors required to enable ‘level 4’ autonomy – the level at which the car has complete control and requires zero driver input or attention.
At this point, it’s feasible that Byton may enable the full functionality of its Shared Experience Display – fulfilling the company’s vision of creating what they grandly refer to as ‘time to be’. The idea being that the numerous hours many of us spend driving each week will be reclaimed.
This level of autonomy is some way off though. The car will be shipped at ‘level 3’ – able to drive independently but users must be alert and ready to take the wheel.
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A mind for manufacturing
With its intelligent manufacturing base in China, cutting edge intelligence development facility in Silicon Valley and a vehicle design centre in Germany, Byton is planning to employ the classic strengths of each region.
The company’s core management team comprises the industry’s top minds from China, Europe and the US, with decades of experience at the likes of BMW, Tesla, Google and Apple between them. Their expertise covers automotive design, automotive engineering and manufacturing, electric powertrain, intelligent connectivity, autonomous driving, user interface and supply chain management.
While Tesla’s Model 3 is plagued by manufacturing delays and complications, Byton may have the manufacturing savoir faire to meet demand and budget targets from the off. Chief executive Carsten Breitfeld spent 20 years overseeing BMW’s i8 programme and told the BBC that Byton has been shaped with production in mind.
“I built this company right from the first day in a way that we have the people on board who know how to industrialise a car, which is a huge job,” said Carsten. “We’ve started the construction of our plant in Nanjing, China. We are well underway.”
Byton’s intelligent electric car will become available to purchase in China in 2019, before being offered in Europe and the US the following year. There are also plans for a sedan and multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) based on the same platform.
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Byton’s vision is admirable and they, as much as anyone, have the potential to challenge Tesla’s early dominance. But the biggest hurdle facing electric cars at present – range – looms large over the start up. While Tesla boasts 8,496 charging points, Byton has none. There’s also the issue of Byton’s larger asking price of $45,000 (compared to Tesla’s $35,000 Model 3).
Just as petrol stations can be used regardless of your vehicle’s brand, this needs to be true of electric vehicles too, for their ubiquity and usefulness to be possible. Tesla founder Elon Musk was questioned by Stuart Miles of Pocket-lint in 2014, after hinting at the possibility of sharing charger technology patents. Musk seemed to go one step further, implying he was happy to share Tesla’s charging points with other companies.
“The intent of the Supercharger network is not to create a walled garden. Any other manufacturer that’s interested in using them, we’d be happy to accommodate… They’d need to contribute to the capital costs proportional to their fleet’s usage of the network.”
While this may be a potential long-term solution to Byton’s charging needs, this would make them somewhat vulnerable to Tesla’s whims. Nonetheless, it shows that Musk has the necessary willing and vision to overhaul our dependency on fossil fuel-powered transportation. I welcome the step-by-step gains, such as Byton’s debut, that serve as milestones on the road to an electric ecosystem.