"Holy shit, my boss just drove into the auto show" When I went down to the booth of BYD Auto, a Chinese car maker trying to break into the US market, all I hoped for was a few honest answers to my questions. The motto of the company is "Build Your Dream," but that last thing I'd dream was that BYD's Chairman would drive me through someone else's press conference during an illegal, surreal and American-media first test drive around the floor of the Detroit Auto Show. Breaking all the rules of proper auto show behavior, BYD Auto's chairman Wang Chaunfu hopped in the driver's seat of his prototype hybrid and took off with me in the passenger's seat, thus proving to the world that he's ready to show that his company's car works. The story of how one small upstart Chinese automaker turned our Detroit Auto Show upside down with the turn of one key below.
When I attended the BYD Auto press conference for the Ferrous Battery-Powered Dual Mode Hybrid, I expected it to be the usual mixture of iffy translations and awkward-looking Chinese cars. Instead, we get the unveiling of technology that's something we haven't seen before. And while it's not earth shattering, the system was intriguing, which was why I decided to go back to see them.
The BYD F6DM Dual Mode Ferrous Battery Hybrid Unveiled
Thankfully, by the time I made it back to the floor the press had scurried off to the next reveal leaving the entire BYD Auto team mostly alone. They were just lounging about after the auto press gang bang they had just received and were feeling playful. One of two American officials from BYD Auto, Michael Austin, was there to help. After explaining more about how the battery system worked, he asked me with a straight face how far other dual modes go without gas power. Then the conversation turned to how we might import one of the test models, including a quasi-legal "gray market" job that involved leaving one of the show cars behind.
An example of how the dual mode hybrid system works
I was trying to get the guy to tell me where the cars were going next when he suggested that we drive the driveable hybrid concept car a few feet, the first "test drive" in America for a company that had just held it's first American press conference only an hour earlier. We hoped to mimic something in the original press conference where the chairman drove the car back and forth a few feet for the cameras (nearly running over our own videographer who was standing in front of it).
I was jumping at the chance to get the exclusive first drive of the concept car and was therefore not too worried by the suddenly confused look all of the Chinese executives got on their faces when Austin suggested this idea to them. A tall and young executive lunged at me with a business card while the rest of them tried to construct a game plan. While discussions continued, the chairman jumped in the car with a translator in tow and invited me to hop in the passenger side.
This is before I realize what was in store for us
I flashed a look to Sherry, our photographer, that said "please dear God be getting this on film." After being visually assured we were going to get art I joked to the translator that we should buckle up. This was a joke because everyone expected the car to only go back and forth a few feet in their display area. Little did we know the chairman had other plans.
After pulling the car forward a few feet so Sherry and a photographer for BYD could snap a few shots we slowed to a crawl. Then he turned the wheel towards the rest of the auto show. I should explain that we're in the middle of an auto show hall at the Cobo Convention Center in Detroit. Everyone has their carpeted show area and there are pathways a few feet wide in between all the automakers (in this wing mostly Chinese). It's not an area that anyone would consider driving. But the chairman's not anyone.
All of a sudden the chairman drives us out into the hall
All of a sudden the car starts moving down the hall and towards the Michelin design gallery. While this is happening the contingent of BYD executives that aren't snapping pictures realize that they need to move people out of the way lest they be hit by the chairman. The translator cooly explains the merits of this clearly workable prototype as the chairman calmly drives around as though he's navigating a quiet boulevard in Shenzhen.
I'm now completely taken with my good luck at getting a real test drive from the Chairman, looking back at the BYD booth now 100 feet away. I was convinced that this was the end of the trip and the car would be backed up to the booth. And then the car sped up to about 10 mph, which is an uncomfortable speed in the middle of a convention center. There was only one obstacle in the way: a press conference.
Little did the ALMS people know the Chinese were on their way
The American Le Mans Series was holding a press conference to discuss the environmental innovations they were making in their racing (including the introduction of E85 ethanol to the racing series). It was fitting then that the chairman of the small chinese automaker, that sells annually in China what Honda sells in a month in the US, was pointing his answer to the environmental question right at them.
The ALMS people are starting to regret having their meeting in the Chinese wing as we drive right in front of the press corps.
And we mean right at them. Right in front of the car was a soon-to-be confused production assistant with a headset going through the sequences of the conference on her walkie-talkie on the area in front of the press, completing the tasks she probably rehearsed all day. She stood alone in the small path that separated the stage with all the conference presenters and the assembled automotive press with their photographers and TV cameras.
Despite the obstacle the chairman pressed on straight at her. A fast acting reporter in the front row tugged on her jacket and she quickly turned to see us in the prototype car. As she moved out of the way I did my best to indicate to the collected press and the poor production crew that I was so sorry we had suddenly driven through their press conference.
After that it was all open
road convention center floor. Either everyone had gotten the memo or the BYD folks acted quickly enough to move those who weren't in the press conference, because the chairmen was able to glide the prototype quickly around the floor and back towards the BYD booth.
I thank the Chairman and give a thumbs up to the BYD photographer, I'm probably on a brochure already
The staff quickly worked to help the chairman back into the display before anyone noticed (other than all the press) that we'd driven a car under a strict-import rule that's not certified to drive on roads, let alone not certified to drive around a convention center. When we jumped out I thanked the Chairman and his staff for letting me be the first, and only, member of the American press to get a drive in this functional prototype due for production in China in the near future.
Dr. Chaunfu is China's answer to Dr Z.
And how was the car? I have to admit, besides it's "heavily borrowed" styling, the F6DM was quite smooth and with a level of fit and finish that was superior to many of the other full production cars on display from China. And that electric motor? Quiet as a mouse. And though we didn't get the high-speed tour, the car drove smoothly and easily around the floor. Is this the future? I can't be sure. But there's no doubt that the company's Chairman is dedicated to proving his car works. Conventions and convention center staff be damned.