In a different lifetime (last year), I was in a small room at a casino in Las Vegas with Carsten Breitfeld and Daniel Kirchert, the co-founders of electric car startup Byton. You may remember them as the one with the giant screen. Anyway, they had just introduced their first electric crossover and were meeting with reporters. They were practically finishing each other’s sentences. Things seemed great.
Well, things have changed.
Breitfeld is best known as a former head of BMW’s i division, in which capacity he fostered the development of the i8. Kirchert is also a former BMW executive. They seemed to me then as pretty serious about their intention to become something like an anti-Tesla.
“We’re trying to be humble and down to Earth,” Kirchert said then. “We want to have the product speak for itself.”
The vehicle did speak for itself for awhile, and Byton seemed to be moving forward. It unveiled an electric sedan called the K-Byte a few months after the crossover introduction, and showed the production version of the electric crossover, called the M-Byte, in Frankfurt just this month.
But things are not all well in Byton world, a sign of which we saw in April, when Breitfeld suddenly left the company for a Chinese startup called Iconiq Motors, where he spent a few months before taking over as CEO of Faraday Future, another (very dubious) startup.
Byton still chugged along with Kirchert, but it was never fully explained why Breitfeld left.
Until last week, that is, when Breitfeld addressed the topic at a media event in Los Angeles. Breitfeld said he left because of interference from the Chinese government, after a state-owned automaker had taken a stake in Byton.
Via Sean O’Kane at The Verge:
“If the Chinese government enters your company, and takes, to some degree, influence or control, which they did at the end of the day, then things will change,” Breitfeld said. “They pushed the direction of Byton [to a place that was] not in line with what I thought we should do.”
Breitfeld is also not terribly optimistic for Byton’s future.
“My feeling is they are going to drive it to a stage where the whole Byton thing will be shut down, they will just keep the plant and the platform,” he said, referring to Byton’s manufacturing facility in Nanjing, China, and the electric technology that powers the startup’s vehicle. Breitfeld also said FAW was approving all of Byton’s expenses and that many on the startup’s engineering team have left the company. “Everyone running the company now is PR and marketing,” he said. “The technical guys all left. By the way, in the future you might find them in another place not so far away from myself.”
In response, Byton told The Verge that it has “almost 500” employees at its research and development center in Santa Clara, Calif., the “vast majority” of which are engineers, in addition to engineers in China at its headquarters in Nanjing. My colleague David Tracy—himself a former engineer at Fiat Chrysler—said those numbers sound about right for a company of Byton’s size.
And so either Byton doesn’t have the engineering team it says it has or Breitfeld is overstating things a bit. As the CEO of a competitor, he certainly has the incentive to make the competition look bad, but considering that Byton still seems on track to actually produce cars (it says production will start in China in December) and Faraday, well, isn’t there yet, Breitfeld may want to sit this one out.
Or maybe he’s just mad that some of his equity in Byton might be threatened.
Breitfeld still has equity in the company, he said, and is still in “not very friendly” discussions with Byton and FAW over the status of that equity.
As Kirchert said in Vegas in happier times, the products will ultimately speak for themselves. And on that count Faraday has a lot of catching up to do.