One year after its first car premiered at the Consumer Electronics Show, Chinese EV startup Byton is back at CES in Las Vegas to offer an update. Specifically, Byton is showing off the near-final version of the inside of its first car. The bizarre screen-filled cockpit that Byton showed off last year has somehow gained another screen since the company’s debut event.
The electric SUV concept that Byton showed off last year was, from the outside, not all that remarkable. It had some interesting headlights and taillights and plenty of cameras embedded around the body, but it otherwise looked similar to any modern SUV.
The inside of the SUV (which has since been named “M-Byte”) was what grabbed all of the headlines for Byton. The M-Byte’s standout feature was a 49-inch screen that spanned the entire width of the windshield, prompting many (legitimate) questions, such as “Is that even legal?” and “Won’t that be distracting as hell?”
Byton’s argument at the time was that the massive display was set far back enough on the dashboard that it was out of the driver’s line of sight, and it wasn’t a touchscreen anyway, so it wouldn’t become a distraction. Besides, the startup said, the M-Byte (and Byton’s subsequent cars) would eventually allow for mostly autonomous driving, and once we arrive at that point, we’ll actually want a big screen to look at.
Byton pointed to the “tablet” touchscreen that’s embedded in the steering wheel as a place where drivers can interact with the M-Byte’s UI. But Byton also demoed a gesture-based system that it said would make it easy to interact with the SUV’s massive screen.
The working version Byton had on offer in last year’s concept didn’t actually work all that well, though, and gesture controls, in general, are still pretty wonky (though they’ve been promised and attempted in cars for years). So that idea has now been replaced, or at least augmented, by a new 8-inch touchscreen in the center console. It’s the M-Byte’s fifth screen (there are two more on the headrests for rear passengers), and it looks like it essentially mimics the functions of the steering wheel tablet. It also cements the fact that screens are inescapable in this car, as all five measure at least 7 inches. There’s at least one for every seat, and that doesn’t count passengers’ phones, which can be docked in the armrests of each door and turned into four additional touchscreen controllers for the car’s UI.
Gesture control will still be a part of the experience inside Byton’s cars, according to the company, but it’s now just one of a number of ways to interact with the software. In addition to the new screen, Byton has added more physical controls to the M-Byte’s interior. There’s voice control (with Amazon Alexa support). The SUV is also now equipped with a driver monitoring system that will make sure people at the wheel don’t get too distracted while using Byton’s driver assistance features.
(There could be plenty distractions, too. Sheer number of screens aside, Byton has talked about integrating riders’ health data and social networks alongside the obvious inclusion of streaming media services. The startup is promising a full-on internet-connected experience on wheels.)
More broadly, Byton also offered an update on its overall plans on Sunday. The final production version of the M-Byte will debut in mid-2019, the company said, and it will start being manufactured at the end of 2019. Byton’s production facility is still being completed in Nanjing, China, but vehicle testing is already underway. A sedan built on the same platform, called K-Byte, is still due in 2021. The startup, which is partially backed by state-owned Chinese automaker FAW Group, looks ready to make some big moves.
It’s not totally clear how Byton will fit all of this tech into a car that starts at around $45,000. Will the base model have an interior that looks more traditional? How much trouble will it run into with regulators, who might buck at all these flashy ideas? And while some of Byton’s ideas make sense in a world where cars are mostly autonomous, will people buy into them in the (potentially many) intervening years before that happens? We’ll hopefully get some answers to these questions when we speak to Byton’s executives at the show later this week.
Whatever the answers, though, fitting flashy technology into a familiar automotive format is Byton’s raison d’être. The startup poached hundreds of employees from traditional automakers, tech companies, and even some of its direct competition. (More than a dozen Faraday Future employees, including its head of supply chain, jumped to Byton at the end of 2017, according to a list viewed by The Verge at the time.) And while it’s based in China, Byton also has offices in Silicon Valley (focused on software and autonomous tech) and Munich, Germany (where its vehicle designs are created).
CEO Carsten Breitfeld spent more than a decade as a vice president of the BMW Group, where he led the development of the i8, the company’s futuristic hybrid sports car. When he spoke with The Verge last summer, he touted his company’s ground-up approach to blending technology and traditional auto industry know-how.
“If you look at the other companies, you will find the traditional car companies are obviously very strong on the car part, but they are not so strong on software, connectivity, and user experience,” Breitfeld said. “Most of the new companies are focusing very much on the internet and user experience part, but they might struggle a bit in the traditional car part.”