On Sunday at CES, new Chinese-backed car startup Byton unveiled its first drivable prototype—an electric crossover with a screen for a dashboard that’s set to launch in late 2019. Afterward, Byton’s co-founder took a veiled shot at Tesla CEO Elon Musk in outlining how Byton was planning to avoid Tesla’s well-known history of production problems.
That’s a bold claim for any newcomer. Byton has boasted that it’s attracted around $320 million in funding and employs over 400 people. While those numbers sound somewhat impressive, they’re nowhere near where they need to be for full production, as we’ve seen with Faraday Future, which despite its troubles claims to have raised $1 billion recently.
But the executives told reporters the plan here is to work more with existing suppliers and be realistic about production and technology, rather than try and reinvent carmaking itself and promise the moon to customers.
Byton still has to do a lot of things right, and are a very long ways away from the finish line from having hand-built the concept cars they showed off at CES. It hasn’t even started production at its plant in Nanjing, China, which is envisioned as a facility that will someday churn out 300,000 cars a year, but for now isn’t even fully licensed by Chinese authorities.
Co-founder Daniel Kirchert admitted to me that this next year will be critical. He said Sunday that the company would begin making its first prototypes in China in the first few months, slowly ramping up production with what his fellow co-founder, Carsten Breitfeld, said were “aggressive but achievable” production goals.
Neither would reveal what those goals are, but one got the sense that Kirchert and Breitfeld were taking notes on how things went so wrong at Tesla.
“We’re trying to be humble and down to Earth,” Kirchert said in response to a question about Elon Musk’s company. I took that to mean fewer tweets about rockets and more of a focus on production. “We want to have the product speak for itself,” he said.
Kirchert went on to say that, in his view, avoiding those problems would be about hiring the right talent, talent which he says the company already has. Many of its personnel came directly from Faraday Future amid that startup’s growing troubles.
Byton has plans to double its headcount by the end of 2018, with workers at its Nanjing factory ballooning further as production ramps up, he said.
All of this will come at a cost, of course, and Kirchert said they planned to raise hundreds of millions of dollars more to fund the business, though they currently project they could break even within “three to five years” after the launch of the crossover. That sounds pretty optimistic to me, even if the Byton crossover went from idea to operating vehicle in just two years.
Their approach to production is also a bit different than Tesla’s, not just in their public posturing, or lack thereof. On the production side, for example, Breitfeld said they would be relying on dozens of partners to help them build the car, as opposed to Tesla, who also relies on suppliers but strives to be a mostly vertical company.
Breitfeld’s vision seemed to be for something horizontal, which might be more complicated but would also carry less risk, since Byton will be working with established companies like Bosch and not trying to reinvent the wheel on their own. And Byton will also spend less on its plant in China compared to Tesla’s California and Nevada plants, both because labor costs aren’t as much in China and thanks to financial help from the Chinese government.
The companies do share some similarities, like a direct sales model and a desire to build a car that’s constantly upgradeable—in both the software and some of the hardware. Byton hopes to take that even further, such that a car you buy in 2019 might be nearly as good as one the company produces years later. (On the other hand, one can easily imagine a scenario when it might be similar to equipping an old iPhone with the latest OS—cosmetically different but functionally crippling. We’ll see!)
One problem both companies will have to solve is charging, with different types of charging standards and outlets emerging in different markets across the world, including Tesla’s rapidly expanding network of Superchargers. Kirchert said they may use that standard or an entirely different one and, most likely, different standards in different markets. In the long-term however, the problem will probably be moot, since, as the industry evolves, he said the industry would also likely settle on a few.
“There will be a huge number of companies,” Kirchert said. “At some point there will have to be standardization.”
Sure, the launch event itself was cheesy, and came chock full of the PR friendly superlatives one expects with these kind of unveilings. CES is still CES, after all. “It’s not about refining cars,” the company’s vice president of marketing said, for example. “It’s about refining life.” And that was before he promised that Byton would “turn miles into smiles.” Also unclear to us: why someone would realistically want to buy a Byton vehicle over a more established automaker, or even a Tesla.
But in a press conference afterward, Kirchert and Breitfeld came off as knowledgeable, sharp, and deadly serious about the task at hand, easily fielding questions ranging from the engineering challenge that was designing a driver’s side airbag to the complexity of China’s business licensing system. At the point in the startup game, everyone seems intent on avoiding the insane and undeliverable promises that got Faraday Future into so much trouble beginning at this same stage two years ago.
Still, there was very little humor about Byton, except when Kirchert, a former managing director of Infiniti in China, said that launching a startup was a lot different than working for one of established automakers.
“I’ve got a few more gray hairs,” he said.