To be honest, the keystone is probably another company entirely: Aurora Innovation, Byton’s autonomous-tech partner. Although overshadowed by Waymo, Aurora is a first-tier player headed by Chris Urmson, from autonomous hotbed Carnegie Mellon, who became Chief Technology Officer of Alphabet’s self-driving program; Sterling Anderson, MIT robotics Ph.D. who led the team that created Tesla’s Autopilot; and Drew Bagnell, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute and founding member of Uber’s Advanced Technology Center. It’s an all-star trio Byton is relying on when the M-Byte (Byton’s initial crossover offering) is delivered with available Level 3 autonomy late this year in China and 2020 in the U.S. and Europe. The prototype of the second Byton, the K-Byte sedan (due in 2021), even shows off visually obvious lidars—literally wearing its potential for Level 4 and 5 capability on its sleeve.
The puzzle pieces are starting to come together. Think about it: If a car is geofenced Level 3 autonomous, everyone inside is also usually a passenger, meaning the drivetrain really needs no more than chauffeur-level performance. All that supercar-level of horsepower is a waste of money better spent on the user’s digital experience and autonomy tech.
I’ve spent some time in Cadillac‘s excellent L2+ Super Cruise system, and after about 10 freeway miles, you’re thinking two things. One: This thing’s noticeably destressing. Two: You’re pretty quickly bored. So last year I pilgrimaged to the opening of Byton’s satellite Santa Clara office—a 13-minute drive from Aurora’s Palo Alto location—where at that time, 150 people were focused on developing The Screen.
This thing is ridiculous
At 48 inches wide—spanning A-pillar to A-pillar—and 10 inches tall, The Screen has the surface area of more than 24 iPhone 10 Maxes. The glowing heart of the car, it’s the precious centerpiece that Byton isn’t outsourcing like its drivetrain or automation, and it’s designed to be replaceable as screen technology improves. Will it be 24 times more compelling than an iPhone 10? Our own Miguel Cortina, who grew up in Mexico City, saw the movie Roma in 70mm film at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood after first watching it on his tablet via Netflix. Better, Miguel? He strongly nods. Then again, while screen size matters, what matters most is what’s on it.
Directed by the Byton operating system, called Byton Life, the digital world being cooked up inside borders on the fantastical. Climb in the cockpit, and cameras on the dash identify you and everybody else while your phone and wrist heart-rate data is synced to the car. Blended with your seat-measured weight, health tips might appear: For instance, after setting a nav destination, the system might ask if you might like to park a half mile away from there to get a needed walk. The digital instrument display moves up and down on the screen when you adjust the steering wheel—there are plenty of extra pixels.
On the highway in Level 3, the Faurecia-supplied front seats can each swivel 12 degrees toward each other for easier chatting. To instruct the giant screen, the driver has a 7.0-inch touchpad on the steering wheel itself; no, the image doesn’t turn with the wheel (Byton calls the steering wheel an engineering feat all its own, given the airbag). The front passenger has an 8.0-inch touchpad in the center console, and both can just finger-point to spots on the screen using its gesture recognition. What about hand-bounce over bumps? Accelerometers compensate and predict where you’re pointing.
If you and a friend separately ask Alexa to play your individual music, it recognizes whose voice is whose. Do you like steak but your passenger is into seafood? Asking for a lunch recommendation returns places that serve both. Abe Chen, who leads Byton’s digital technology department, described another example: “Let’s say you drop your kid off every day at school and then go to Starbucks. The car recognizes your coffee appetite and suggests an interesting alternative nearby.” To enable this, the M-Byte will be the first car to have full connectivity on the go via multiple antennas and 5G preparation.
Creeped out by all this connectedness? Chen understands. At Apple, he created their worldwide new-product security team; he was Tesla’s director of information and product security; and in 2017, his group bested 75 other teams to win DEF CON’s Car Hacking Village Capture the Flag competition. CEO Carsten Breitfeld calls the Byton “mobility’s smartphone moment.”
Who the heck are these guys?
Carsten is a craggy, steel-eyed Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, a 20-year BMW veteran, a 10-year BMW Group Vice President, and most recently project manager of BMW’s carbon-tub Batmobile i8. His co-founder and Byton’s president, Daniel Kirchert, is lean, speaks concisely, and has spent much of his life in China learning its culture and business ropes as managing director of Infiniti China. These guys are the antithesis of an Asian web tycoon-turned-lawsuit-refugee or pot-puffing Twitter warrior. Breitfeld and Kirchert are seasoned, no-nonsense auto-industry Germans with decades of experience experiencing “manufacturing hell,” brought together by a Chinese seed-money investor.
During a Q&A session after the car’s debut at CES 2018, the more spontaneous Breitfeld leaned back and got to free-talking (in a manner that reminds me of a German James Mason). At 50 years of age, he could have ridden out that big career at BMW. But he chose to throw himself into one last life-defining battle and pull the ripcord into this uncharted new jungle of EVs and autonomous and connected cars.
One reason is the conviction that China will be writing the next chapter of the automobile. Problems at Byton, he says, are fixed by the time a legacy automaker would be drawing up a Gantt chart. Quickening the timeline is designer Benoit Jacob, responsible for the BMW i3 and i8. Breitfeld relies on his sensitivity to production practicalities, to avoid time-wasting misunderstandings between engineering and design. The $45,000 base-price M-Byte advanced from a conversation to reality in 28 months compared to the customary four, even five years for most automakers. Maintaining that pace, their third car—a bigger, seven-passenger MPV—will be based on the same platform and drivetrain as the M and K. (Byton openly questions Tesla judgement in creating two platforms.)
Although hubbed in Shanghai, Byton’s 1,500 employees are dispersed among five locations. Construction of the nearby Nangyang factory is complete with equipment now being installed. (Breitfeld says its initial capacity of 100,000 cars is a critical threshold for meaningful economies of scale; total capacity will be 300,000.) Roughly 100 M-Byte prototypes are being tested right now; design and engineering happens in Munich.
When I asked where Breitfeld finds scarce software engineers in the Silicon Valley area, Carsten smiled. “They just drive north up Interstate 5 from Gardena,” he said. That’s code for the home of Faraday Future and its perilous existence. Mention Faraday, and Byton’s founders simultaneously wince. Yep, they fully understand the skepticism—another futuristic, China-based EV startup, right? At every opportunity they seem anxious to be crystal-clear about their financials and partners.
One evening during this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, I stood in the chill night outside the mostly deserted convention center waiting my turn to ride in an M-byte prototype.
The car was a cobbled-together mule that snail-drummed over the street’s ripples and snapped Buddy Rich rimshots over the potholes. In actuality, its screen graphics were just a quickly monotonous video loop. So I sat back and just stared as the streets of downtown L.A. slowly reeled by me.
Ahead are two illuminated worlds. Looking up, the still-glowing neon office towers are slowly sliding past each other like giant playing cards. Left and right, people are prowling the dirty sidewalks beneath the renovated Depression-Era masonry lofts. Some of them are pausing to consider a restaurant I don’t know or crowding around a club or gallery that might be fun. Cocooned in this car, I’m abstracted from them. Like watching aquarium fish through the thick glass.
I stared at the other illuminated world in front of me—the panoramic Byton screen that’s still looping its same graphics. In a matter of months this could be the portal through that barrier, merging me to them, those places, that world out there. Recently, I called the Tesla Model 3 the Automobile 2.0. Maybe the Byton is what the post-automobile will look like. It’s not about driving. It’s about living. Suddenly conventional cars seem one-dimensional. Go from here. To there. This is 3-D.
A few years ago, we did a speculative story about what an Apple Car might be like. (Apple’s Project Titan was an open secret.) Soon after, Tim Cook pulled its plug, though smart money says they’re still developing an autonomous system. Now, the iPhone’s sales have softened, Apple’s stock has tumbled, and its failure to bet big again in the time since the Steve Jobs days is coming to roost. I ask you, Mr, Cook, how did the scrappy guys at Byton build the Apple Car you guys couldn’t?