With a 49-inch screen spanning the dash from one door to the other, the first car-of-the-future unveil at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas didn’t disappoint when it came to that all-important measure: tech bling. Chinese car startup Byton unveiled an SUV it’s all but shoving into the future, checking off keywords like electric, autonomous, connected, shared, enriching, transformative, luxurious, entertaining, intuitive, and efficient—several times over.
Electric smart cars backed by Chinese investment have been a regular part of the CES lineup for the past few years (chief among them the struggling Faraday Future). But despite the country’s use of incentives and regulation to encourage electric driving, none of these have made it into mass production.
But Byton could go differently. Underneath the hype and buzz is a rather reasonable electric vehicle, which, if the company manages to sell for the quoted $45,000 price, will excite people who can’t wait for a Tesla Model 3, or who want an SUV, and don’t want to drop the extra cash on a Model X or Jaguar I-Pace.
“What’s significant here is they seem to have done a thorough job of answering all the questions,” said Stephanie Brinley, Senior Analyst at IHS Markit, as we pushed through the crowds trying to take pictures of the crazy interior through the windows. “They seem to have learnt from some of the others who had more ideas, and less detail.” Company reps took pains to explain how they’d considered software updates and next generation connectivity to keep the car current.
Byton’s vehicle is a high-sided, angular, SUV-ish vehicle—a form factor that is popular for the high driving position and practicality. Byton says it has discarded the unnecessary history of old-fashioned human-driven cars (hidden door handles, no side mirrors!) but it still looks conventional enough to be acceptable in a suburban driveway. A narrowing glass line and blacked out C-pillar give the currently popular “floating roof” look.
Inside, the front seats swivel 12 degrees towards the center of the car, presumably to help passengers chat when the vehicle is in autonomous mode (whenever that’s available) and high speed 5G connectivity (ditto) to stream movies or video chat on that giant screen. The steering wheel has its own 10-inch screen embedded into it for just the driver, for those times when the IMAX on the dash isn’t enough. Other goodies include sensors built into the seats that can track the driver’s heart rate, or weight. “Your Byton will be the first vehicle that functions like a wearable,” says co-founder Daniel Kirchet, whose CV includes stints at BMW and Infinti, making cars for the Chinese market. Cool?
So far, so flashy. But when you’re talking about the car part of the Byton, things are much more reasonable. The SUV should be good for over 300 miles of range from a 71- or 95-kwh battery back, quite similar to what Tesla offers. The battery can be fast charged to 80 percent in 30 minutes, totally plausible with current technology. It will come with single, or dual motors, just like Tesla cars.
The newcomer’s Chinese-backed competitors include Lucid, which has only produced a few handmade prototypes of its luxury EV, the Air, and Faraday, which is in a fair bit of trouble, bleeding cash and losing executives.
Byton plans to build its cars in Nanjing, China, and to launch in its home country in 2019, then internationally in 2020. No Chinese car has ever sold well outside of China, but Brinley says in principle, that could change if the car impresses. “It won’t take too long to get over the fact that it’s Chinese, assuming they can deliver the product they’ve talked about here.” Americans buy millions of Japanese and Korean cars a year, and it may be just a matter of time before they look at Chinese cars the same way.
Still, be skeptical. The other Tesla wannabes out there aren’t doing so well, and Tesla itself keeps pushing back production targets for its new Model 3. Building cars at scale, it turns out, is hard. Making money doing it is even harder.
© 2018 Condé Nast. All rights reserved.
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