Chinese EV startup Byton says it’s ready to achieve what seemed unlikely, maybe even impossible, less than two years ago. The aspiring automaker showed off the final production version of its M-Byte SUV at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show on Tuesday, and affirmed plans to put the premium SUV — and its headline-grabbing, dashboard-spanning screen — into production at a newly-finished automotive plant in Nanjing, China before the end of this year. The SUV will offer more than 200 miles of range per charge, and start at around $45,000 when it goes on sale in China in the middle of next year, before coming to the US and Europe in 2021.
The finished version of the M-Byte doesn’t look all that different from the concept the startup debuted during its big coming out party at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show. In a way, that’s a confirmation of the original goal. Byton didn’t set out to built the baddest, fastest, or most expensive electric car on the market, unlike many other EV startups that have emerged over the last few years. Instead, the company promised something with solid, if not startling performance at a somewhat reasonable price tag.
That said, the inside of the M-Byte is what drew a lot of initial attention to Byton, and for good reason. The original concept featured a 48-inch screen that rose up from the dashboard like a ridge, stretching from pillar to pillar. There was also an 8-inch touchscreen in the center of the steering wheel. The company swore up and down that these screens were not just daring ideas that would be thrown out when it came time for production. No, they were meant to be some of, if not the, defining features of the car. (Byton is in fact so hellbent on screens that the company revealed it was adding another touchscreen to the SUV at this year’s CES.)
Co-founder and CEO Daniel Kirchert tells The Verge that all these screens remain in the production version. In fact, Kirchert says, the only main feature Byton touted in the concept that won’t make it to production was the idea of using facial recognition to identify whoever is approaching the car. The company has already reduced its reliance on gesture control for the main screen, though, and it added a few more physical buttons. But it Kirchert remains proud of the software experience that Byton has built to power the car. “Our UI and UX is so far ahead of everything else that we’re seeing out there,” Kirchert says.
The entry level M-Byte will travel up to 360 kilometers (224 miles) on a full 72kWh battery, and it comes with a single electric motor mounted on the rear axle with a peak power output of 200kW (about 270 horsepower). Byton will also sell a more expensive all-wheel drive version that draws power from a 95kWh battery pack, which should last for about 435 kilometers (or around 270 miles). The AWD M-Byte has a peak power output of 300kW, or about 402 horsepower. Again, neither version will beat a Tesla Model X or a Porsche Taycan off the line, but should match up favorably with cars like the Tesla Model 3 or the Chevy Bolt.
It’s not a total surprise that Byton is now ready to try to build a vehicle that largely resembles the concept it showed off just 20 months ago. The automotive industry is built around long lead times, and so any changes run the risk of delays. This meant the M-Byte’s design either had to be largely locked in when Byton showed off the concept, or the company would have had to push back the end of 2019 target for production.
Kirchert’s other co-founder, Carsten Breitfeld, told The Verge at CES this year that working on a compressed schedule was one of the experiences he brought to the table. As the head of BMW’s i division, Breitfeld oversaw the design and production of the i8 supercar, which he said took just around 38 months “from idea to production.”
“That had never happened before,” Breitfeld said. “It was in record time.”
Breitfeld and Kirchert (who also spent a lot of time at BMW, though he was involved in the automaker’s China division) applied this “startup mentality” to Byton and the company’s 1,600 employees. But that pace hasn’t come without a cost, even at the executive level. At CES earlier this year, Kirchert described 2018 as the “longest year of [his] life.” Breitfeld left Byton a few months later to run a different Chinese startup, a sudden move that Kirchert says was a total surprise. (Breitfeld recently took up another new post — CEO of struggling EV startup Faraday Future.)
With all the talk of stereotypical startup struggles, Byton certainly isn’t going it alone as it heads into production. The company announced earlier this year that it was taking investment from state-owned First Automobile Works (FAW), which was the first big automaker in China. What started as a cooperation — where FAW agreed to help Byton establish its supply chain and solve other logistic headaches — has bloomed into a more involved partnership, one that Kirchert says will be explained in greater detail in the months to come. FAW is also interested in the platform Byton has developed (which Byton already plans to use to power a second vehicle, a sedan known as the K-Byte).
“They respect our independence as a startup, and at the same time, we can make use of their strengths,” Kirchert says. “It’s really a good fit.”
It may feel like it was just yesterday that Byton made its CES debut. But even 20 months ago, the world of EV startups was much different. Yes, Faraday Future was already in the midst of its first of two major financial crises. But China was only just beginning to see an enormous boom in EV startups that popped up across the country’s provinces, which were largely driven by government policy and incentives. Now? The government in Beijing is reining in many of those subsidies amidst a lagging economy and a roaring trade war with the US. Byton may be a startup, but when all is said and done, the deal with FAW may prove more important than whatever the M-Byte offers customers, when (and if) the SUV starts rolling out to customers.