After debuting its M-Byte SUV earlier this year at CES 2018, Chinese electric vehicle startup Byton has followed up with the K-Byte sedan concept, revealed in Pebble Beach, Calif. during Monterey Car Week 2018. The K-Byte's design builds on the techno-chic aesthetic of its SUV with new elements that highlight the company's goal of hitting the road with Level 4 highly automated driving by 2021.
We sat down with Byton CEO and co-founder, Dr. Carsten Breitfeld, and Vice President of Intelligent Car Experience, Dr. Daniel Kirchert, at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance during Monterey Car Week to talk about autonomous vehicle design, the future of luxury car-sharing, and how tomorrow's cars will be more like today's smartphones.
Design driven by autonomy
The most interesting part of the K-Byte sedan is how Byton has made the vehicle's sensors a focal point of the design. You don't have to look closely to spot the four conspicuous "LiGuard" lidar sensors: Two are displayed prominently on the roof at either end of the "LiBow" -- a spine-like 5G antenna. Two more retractable lidar lenses protrude from the fenders when the sedan is operating autonomously. All of the sensors are highlighted with bright purple illumination -- probably not legal for use on most US highways, but a nice conceptual touch -- that draw the eye and complements the concept's deep metallic purple paint.
When asked why Byton chose to highlight hardware that most automakers would try to hide or minimize, Kirchert explained, "If you think about traditional premium cars in the past, it's been about speed and exhaust pipes, spoilers and so on. In the future, these signatures will be replaced by signatures which exemplify that this car is connected, it's smart and it's autonomous. I think that's extremely cool and very exciting."
Kirchert went on to explain that with Level 4 autonomy as Byton's primary goal, the startup was faced with the reality that hiding the necessary sensors would be a challenge. Instead, its designers embraced the notion of showcasing the hardware as its signature, not just as a design exercise but as a realistic implementation.
"The K-Byte is a study in showing what Level 4 driving can look in a very positive way. The sensors don't need to be hidden, they can become a signature of design of the car. This car features four lidar sensors, and that's the design language of the future from my point of view. It will be about showing that this car is smart and connected and still very beautiful."
Working with with Silicon Valley self-driving startup Aurora for its autonomous hardware and software, Byton's goal is Level 4 self-driving on the road by 2021.
More than enough power is good enough
Both the K-Byte and M-Byte basically use off-the-shelf electric motor technology supplied by Bosch, rather than bespoke hardware developed in-house. That's because, according to Byton, current EV technology is already very well-established at this point, so there's no need to reinvent the wheel.
"Our brand is not differentiating through power," states Byton CEO and co-founder, Dr. Carsten Breitfeld. "The base configuration is 200 kW [268 horsepower]; you can add another 150 to the front axle, then it's 350 kW [470 horsepower]. This is more than enough power than you need. If the car accelerates in 3.5, 4 or 5 seconds from zero to 60 is not really of interest for us."
The most important performance spec, according to Byton, is the range. The models will be made available with two lithium-ion battery pack sizes supplied by Chinese battery producer Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., Limited (CATL): 71 kilowatt-hours, good for 250 miles of range, and 95 kilowatt-hours, able to cover 325 miles. That'll put the Bytes alongside Tesla's Model S, which offers between 259 and 335 miles depending on configuration, and Model X, with its optimal 295-mile range.
"We will adapt and apply whatever is the best technology in the market," said Breitfeld, "but we are not going to drive the development of electric powertrains."
Kirchert expands on this idea stating that traditionally "it has been about horsepower, about driving, but also about great design and so on. Our cars are still about great design, but we will be much more focused on the experience in the car. What we are trying to create with Byton as a brand is a digital living space -- letting the car become a place which allows you to make better use of your time. In that way, the car becomes a smart device."
Byton has chosen to focus on standing apart with autonomous technology and its user experience. High-speed connectivity, specifically wireless 5G expected in Chinese markets by end of next year, will allow the automaker to deliver a unique cabin experience powered by the "Byton Cloud" and a massive dashboard display.
As we saw at CES, that end-to-end, superwide display (as well as the steering wheel screen and dual rear-seat displays) showcases a dizzying amount of information and customization, which will allow passengers a wide range of entertainment, productivity and even health monitoring options when the car is operating autonomously.
The executives were quick to clarify that a focus on autonomy doesn't mean that they don't care about driving.
"There will always be room for people who want to drive themselves, and that's why in our car we keep a steering wheel and we don't plan to take it away," Kirchert explains, "but autonomy in the future will give you a chance, if you want, to make better use of your time."
Shared mobility is scaled mobility
New technologies typically first reach the market in expensive luxury cars before trickling down to more affordable models. Byton's approach with its first two luxury models certainly seems that way at first. However with autonomous cars, nontraditional ownership models such as shared mobility could help speed up the democratization of tech.
"The real-life application of Level 4 will start very much from shared mobility -- there will also be some individual use cases -- but I think the primary use case will be shared cars. That's because the full sensor configuration for Level 4 will still be quite expensive, but for a shared car or shared fleet environment that will be much easier to implement," explains Kirchert.
"If you think about getting Level 4 in the future up to scale, shared fleets will play a very important role. The cost of those sensors will eventually come down, but in order for that to happen, we need to reach a certain scale," Kirchert continues.
Sharing is baked right into the K-Byte and M-Byte, thanks to the Byton Cloud function, which saves customer's preferences, content and configurations in the cloud. That profile information will follow the customer from car to car, anywhere in the world and be instantly unlocked with facial recognition technology. Hop out of your M-Byte in California, fly to China, and the K-Byte waiting for you will practically be the same car, exactly as you like it. This is what Byton thinks will be the breakthrough point for shared mobility.
"People will still buy cars and drive them," elaborates Breitfeld, "the M- and K-Byte still have steering wheels, but the percentage of cars going into fleet operation for shared mobility will be bigger and bigger."
Like a smartphone on wheels
Byton's approach to the automobile reminds me very much of how smartphones are designed and developed. Byton's hardware and software partnerships with Bosch and Aurora are a lot like how Essential worked with Qualcomm for chips and Google for software when piecing together the Essential Phone PH-1.
As a startup and a newcomer like Essential, Byton faces the very real possibility of being overshadowed by more established electric automotive players like Tesla. However, it expects that customers will be drawn to its blend of features, tech and design and then wooed by the high level of software customization and the promise that, as with smartphones, that experience will continue to evolve and improve, thanks to over-the-air software updates bringing new functionality, content and customizations.
Like a smartphone, much of Byton's chances for success will hinge upon fast connectivity and how well its tech works. Breitfeld says help from the Chinese market with early adoption of 5G connectivity and Level 4 autonomous technology will help the startup get a leg up.
"Strong support from the government in China will make this happen," Breitfeld says. "And I think China understands that this technology adds value to societies, and therefore they're driving it forward."
Production starts on the M-Byte SUV in 2019, and it will arrive first in the Chinese market with its full lidar array, but only Level 3 partially automated driving. The SUV is projected to reach the US market by mid-2020 and Europe shortly thereafter. Byton expects the K-Byte sedan to roll into markets in 2021, with Level 4 autonomy coming to the brand's vehicles as a software update in the same year.