Byton wants you to think of its new M-Byte electric crossover as “the world’s first smart device on wheels.” It’s a corny tag line inspired by tons of research indicating that customers are starting to value connectivity over the traditional automotive characteristics we here at MotorTrend hold dear. It’s also why this story, ostensibly about a new car, the M-Byte, will read a bit like coverage of a new smartphone or something.
Seriously. Byton’s Chief Customer Officer Dr. Andreas Schaaf even went so far as to articulate the chilling phrase “Data power over horsepower,” when noting that “On average, 40% of users say that they would switch [car brands] for better connectivity services—this is twice as many as three years ago. In China the need for connectivity is even higher with about 65% of the users ready to switch brands for better connectivity services.”
A likely story, you might mutter, for a company like Byton whose wimpy 268-402 hp cars couldn’t hope to whup a Ludicrous-mode-capable Tesla. But as our own Kim Reynolds pointed out in his early preview of the Byton last year, with autonomy right around the corner—and promised via over-the-air update on the Byton, just like on Teslas—all that excess horsepower will become moot when you’re just being shuttled around by the computer in such a way as to prevent you getting car sick. No, what the M-Byte’s really all about is its in-car tech, gigantic interior screen, and myriad connectivity partnerships, which Byton rolled out in detail at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show.
Suddenly, Byton’s decision to spend its R&D and bill-of-materials budget on multiple onboard internet modems, a 48-inch interior screen (plus four more touchscreens), super antennas, cutting-edge cloud connectivity, and forging mobile retail and entertainment partnerships seems smarter than spending it on double the power and acceleration capability. The Byton is, after all, expected to open at $45,000, with a mid-spec car going for $55,000, and the fully loaded one topping out at $70K when it hits our shores in 2021.
Money also wasn’t blown on cutting-edge styling and headline-grabbing door articulation. On the design front, the production Byton M-Byte looks almost exactly like the concept shown two years ago at the 2018 CES, which is to say, vaguely attractive but mostly unexceptional. Owners spend their time looking at the inside, not the outside, and that in-car screen is nothing if not exceptional.
Using that screen (pictured above) will be “a five-dimensional experience,” involving touch, voice, facial recognition, hand gesture, and yes, even a few good old fashioned hard buttons. A camera mounted above the center console interprets gestures, while a camera array down on the center of the dash above the vents handles facial recognition for driver monitoring. The company is working on utilizing the driver gaze function to permit selection of screen options, but that feature is not ready for prime time yet.
The company’s one-hour press conference ahead of the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show—a fitting debut venue—barely scratched the surface of what info will be presented on the in-car screen. A few highlights include an “office mode” that allows video conferencing with shared PowerPoint screens and the works when the vehicle is stationary—you get audio only when in motion. A fitness screen developed in conjunction with Garmin can present data collected from occupant wearable devices and present comparative fitness stats for the driver and passenger. The 20 standard driver-assistance systems are said to present more information more interestingly than in typical cars, and of course the car can display sports scores, stock ticker info, top new items, etc.
The driver controls what shows up on this screen via the touchscreen in the center of the steering wheel (which remains upright and level even as the steering wheel turns). The passenger gets to play along too, using the second touch screen on the center console. Folks in back get screens too (which may be optional equipment).
And of course, when parked (or maybe not, after the M-Byte’s promised upgrade to level 3 or 4 autonomous driving capability), the main screen can play movies. Toward that end, Byton has partnered with ViacomCBS to provide content and also with Access to handle the purchase and delivery of said content.
Byton has opened a developer program to help third-party app-designers customize content for the Byton user experience. Six early partners appeared onstage at CES: Xperi (digital radio technologies, including HD radio and DTS connected radio with internet connectivity), AccuWeather, Aiqudo (a voice services provider powering “hey Byton” onboard), Cloudcar (an infotainment provider), and Road.Travel (for easy onboard road-trip planning). One note on cloud data: In the wake of all the Huawei data security kerfuffle, the question was asked about the potential for the copious user data this car collects making its way back to China. CEO and co-founder Carsten Breitfeld stated definitively that all such information gathered resides permanently in the country it was gathered in. These clouds don’t cross borders, apparently.
A bit more info was divulged about the Byton retail experience as well. Back in November 2019, licenses were awarded to Byton Americas LLC, the company’s North American distribution arm and to Byton Cars California, LLC, its first state retail outlet. According to Byton “The California dealer license will make it possible to sell and lease directly to BYTON customers in the state. In addition, this license will also make it possible to directly retail vehicles online to customers in other states.” California will be the launch market, but a graphic flashed up on the screen showed four locations in California plus what looked like one each presumably arriving later in Oregon, Washington, Texas, Florida, and New York.
Byton will employ a “hybrid retail model,” that managing director Jose Guerrero claims “has never been attempted in the U.S.” It involves partnering with third-party companies to facilitate sales and service while selling cars directly from the factory. Basically, the dealer never has to purchase and “floor plan” the cars in inventory. Byton has 10 such partners in China covering 30 cities, and nine in Europe covering 14 locations, but it is reportedly in talks with a single company in the U.S. We expect it to be an AutoNation/CarMax type nationwide chain, not Walmart. We’ll be eager to learn how this model works in the states where strict dealer franchise laws have hitherto prevented Tesla from selling cars (like, say, Michigan).
Also announced last November was Byton’s arrangement with Electrify America that will grant Byton customers unlimited complimentary 30-minute charging sessions (spaced at least 60 minutes apart) at Electrify America’s public DC Fast charging stations, as well as unlimited complimentary 60-minute sessions at its public level-2 chargers for the first two years of ownership. Byton claims that owners will have access to 3,500 150-kW+ fast chargers in 800 locations, any of which should be able to add 150 miles of range in 30 minutes (based on estimated EPA range for the 268-hp RWD model with a 95-kW-hr battery pack). And because of Electrify America’s network interoperability agreements with several other major networks, Byton owners will have easier paid access to more than 36,000 DC Fast and Level 2 chargers, all from a single Electrify America account.
The brand new factory in Nanjing, China that will produce the M-Byte has been completed, and deliveries will begin in China this year with sales in the EU and North America beginning in 2021. A partner company has been identified in Korea that will build complete knock-down kits for Korean consumption and possible export to countries that impose tariffs on Chinese cars. Expect the K-Byte sedan to enter production 18 months behind the M-Byte. Byton expects demand to be split evenly between China, the EU, and North America, and claims to have 21,000 pre-orders in the EU, of 60,000 total global reservations.
We eagerly look forward to testing its upload and download speeds along with its 0-60, quarter-mile, and figure-eight performance.