Best of both worlds 

Byton CEO Carsten Breitfeld tells New Mobility why the new kids on the block are utilising global positioning and changing the way automakers operate.  

Byton is strategically positioned all over the world, with prime locations in Silicon Valley, Munich and Hong Kong. Carsten Breitfeld, who joined the company in July 2016 after four years as Vice President of Engineering at BMW's i division, is in charge of overseeing Byton’s development as its CEO. First unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the concept is a great representation of future mobility, with a sleek design and a revolutionary dashboard interface that immerses drivers through accessibility and simplicity. The design team is based in the heart of Munich, utilising Germany’s excellence in the premium side of the automotive industry. When it comes to innovation and the electronic architecture of the vehicle, there is no better place to nurture than Silicon Valley, a connected haven that Byton believes is vital to the success of future mobility. On the other side of the world, production and supply chain processes are focused out of China so that Byton can achieve an affordable price position of approximately $45,000. Breitfeld explains that, by operating in six locations worldwide, the company is able to to bring experts from around the world together and create a product that will change the automotive industry. "We are trying to combine the best of different regions around the world. We are not reinventing the vehicle, but we are focused on high quality existential premium design. We concentrate on what matters, such as the user interface and overall experience inside the vehicle." 

Byton is closely following the three major trends that are already changing the industry. The first is electric powertrains, which are more or less established with technology already becoming readily available. Connectivity is also a trend that is influencing automation, through AI and autonomous driving, that will allow vehicles of the future to be smarter. Shared transportation is the third emerging trend, identified by Byton as a suitable alternative to owning a vehicle, which will save space and costs. “These all open up new business opportunities and we want to be involved in this area,” Breitfeld explains. “Our brand is centreed around the user experience and it is important to know what to offer your customers with an autonomous and connected product that is operated through shared use." 

Jump in and go 

An interesting facet of Byton's SUV is the driver recognition system, that identifies a customer when they get into the vehicle for the first time and tailors it to their chosen settings. A facial recognition camera allows drivers to create a profile and configure such things as seating position and digital content, which means that you can access your own Byton vehicle anywhere. "Whatever Byton you use around the world, whether that is from a rental company or through a mobility service, it will recognise you and allow customers to feel as if they are in their own car,” says Breitfeld. "Why do people buy cars? It’s because they want to go from A to B as safely and as comfortably as possible.” People don't want to adapt to new environments all the time; they want to get in and go, as if it was their own car. Byton provides this by creating its user interface entirely through software, using a large screen that allows personalisation. Fundamentally, the connected vehicle is a next generation smart device, which will become the norm in a few years.   

What is most impressive is that, rather than being a standalone product, it is an overall solution to future mobility, being a direct response to the changing automotive and transportation industries. It is now becoming more about the technology and service of the vehicle rather than the performance and driving pleasure. This is difficult to incorporate into the design as you need a completely new way of thinking when creating a vehicle that is so much more than a car. "We will definitely see a trend towards smart transportation in the future, such as applications like Uber that can link with the vehicle and it would remove the large cost factors such as the driver. We not only provide the product to mobility providers, but set up a business model to be part of smart transportation by creating our own application or working with a startup,” explains Breitfeld. However, there will still be a need for some drivers to operate their own car, which is why Byton has still included these features in the futuristic SUV.  

The vehicle itself is a beautiful premium car with a great design. When it comes to the powertrain and chassis, all the standard technology you expect remains, but refined to a premium level. However, everything is completely new inside the car, with high speed connectivity through an advanced infotainment system, combined with an interior that allows you to rotate the front seats when in autonomous mode, creating a revolutionary user experience. "It is important to analyse what people really want in the car and you can already see this on the road today,” adds Breitfeld. “On my morning commute, the average speed is between 5-8 mph due to the traffic. 95% of people have their left hand on the steering wheel and their right hand holding their smartphone. This shows us how people want to make use of their time in situations like this, so why not offer them this kind of innovation directly from the car in a much more efficient and safer way?” 

Gaining a global presence

A rapid emergence of automotive presence in several global technology exhibitions has allowed new players in the industry like Byton to showcase and grow in what used to be an impossible sector to break into. Although it is still a very difficult environment in which to succeed, the introduction of future mobility and connected technology has created a level playing field where established automakers are no longer comfortable at the top. Petrol and diesel are on the way out, which has had a big impact on major auto shows in Germany and the US, seeing more drop-off every year. Events such as CES, where Byton first showcased its concept, have been vital for new companies to flourish in a new and exciting area of transportation. "If you want to see very expensive and well-made Swiss mechanical watches, you will go to the traditional events around the world. However, if you want to see the latest smartwatches, you will go to technology events such as CES,” says Breitfeld. “As long as you have products which are very traditional and are focused on driving pleasures and performance figures, you will still have automotive events such as you see in Detroit. But, if you want to see products prepared for shared mobility and advanced technology, you will go to technology shows like CES; this has become very clear over the last few years. If you want to be a part of this modern interpretation, then you definitely have to go this route. Every year, the innovation is moving somewhere else.”  

At the end of the day, if society wants to have autonomous and electric cars in the market, somebody must earn money. To earn money, companies must sell or rent the mobility service to the consumer, who will only pay if the product saves them money or is more efficient. Thus, it is important to have the customers, suppliers and mobility business models working together, creating a modern ecosystem tailored to everyone’s needs. “We have to get citizens involved in mobility in the early stages,” says Frey. “For example, the Mayor of Karlsruhe informed everyone on the test field that had been created in the area of the impacts that it would have on road structure and the life of the citizens. We presented the legal, privacy and security aspects of autonomous cars and where they will be tested.” Through these discussions and the data collected, Frey explains that a summary of the concerns from the citizens in the area was formed, which helped them to understand the trends of future mobility. “It is important for us to learn what citizens think about mobility, as it will only work if it is accepted in the area. The response has been very positive; we thought that there would be a lot of concerns about security, but most of the questions were about when it will start, on what roads and when they can use the autonomous cars. They are all very interested in this technology - for example, older people are very interested in this as it allows them to travel freely and commuters can work as they travel.”

What gives Byton the edge over other newly created automotive brands is that it has strategically positioned itself as a global company, which allows it to exploit benefits from specialist regions around the world: Silicon Valley's strong startup presence, Germany's manufacturing capabilities and China's leading EV and battery technology. There have been many companies that we have seen over recent years, especially from Asia, which have struggled to break into the Western markets. This is what makes Byton so different as there haven't been many automakers from an Asian background that are in the position to break into Europe and the US as well as this. To me, Byton has the perfect mix of a startup and global automotive brand. This success can be attributed to the team, which consists of former top-tier automotive executives from global brands. Breitfeld spent 20 years at BMW and tells me that he has been involved with “nearly every job you can do in a premium car company.” The former BMW i8 Project Head has an unparalleled understanding of what it takes to bring an idea to the market. Alongside him are former BMWi designers and management brought over from Nissan and Tesla. “If you know how to set up a premium brand, you definitely have an advantage,” he adds. “A premium brand needs a product with a global reach as there is no premium brand in the world today that only operates in one market. We designed the company from the first day to be a global player.” Byton will launch its first product in China and look to launch in the US and Europe six months later, introducing a full lineup of vehicles. However, there is still a big challenge ahead. Breitfeld and his team will have a lot of work to do. “We must be focused, speak about our achievements and not about our visions and over-deliver so that we can be credible for our investors, suppliers and startups,” he forecasts. 

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