The domain of upstart Chinese electric carmakers is a wild one. One moment you’re on top of the world, parading a semi-autonomous crossover with the largest infotainment screen ever at the world’s biggest tech convention. Production, you promise, is right around the corner. Two years later, you’re scrounging just to keep your head above water.
This tale belongs to a few brands, and even some — like Faraday Future and particularly Nio — have ventured within inches of death only to pull themselves out of the mire. With government assistance, of course. Byton may not be so lucky, according to a story from Nikkei Asia:
A court in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, held a hearing Monday on the request of Shanghai Huaxun Network System Co., a Byton creditor. Shanghai Huaxun demanded a bankruptcy proceeding for Nanjing Zhixing New Energy Vehicle Technology Development Co., Byton’s main business unit.
Byton suspended worker payrolls while its factories halted operations, according to a person close to the company. Byton, which unveiled its first M-Byte concept car in 2018, has yet to start commercial production, originally scheduled for 2019. Even if the company could launch products soon, Byton cars would not be competitive with rivals under current market conditions, the person said.
Byton didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the bankruptcy case and its latest business problems.
If you’ve been following Byton, you’ll recall that the company lost both of its chief executives within the last 24 months. First, Carsten Breitfeld, ex-BMW vice president of engineering and i8 product lead, left the startup for Faraday Future in 2019. A year later, co-founder Daniel Kirchert departed for Evergrande. They’re not doing too hot either.
Byton, which earlier enjoyed backing from Foxconn, Tencent and state-owned First Auto Works, revealed its first sign of trouble in late 2019 when it failed to pass a funding round. The tie-up with FAW also produced friction between Byton’s government backers and Breitfeld, who later told the media that agreeing to take FAW’s money effectively neutered his influence as CEO. From a Verge story upon Breitfeld’s departure two years ago:
“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.”
Foxconn is still working with Byton. However, it also recently decided that if it wants EVs done right, it may as well do them itself under its own brand. Meanwhile, Tencent has fingers in Evergrande’s and Geely’s pies. Byton’s friends and their well-lined pockets are disappearing, or at least distancing themselves from imminent failure.
As someone who was present at the company’s CES 2019 presser and actually had the chance to interview Breitfeld, I really can’t overstate the momentum the company had at that event. Granted, you can dazzle the tech world with lots of screens in an electric car at a trade show like CES, a place where people seriously believe flying taxis are never more than five years away. Wowing the media is easy; series production is quite another story. Still, Byton came out of nowhere and captured the zeitgeist. You have to remember, too, that Faraday Future was regarded as a laughing stock at the time. Oh, how the tables have turned.