Place Your Bets: Another Chinese-backed Startup 'Ready' to Challenge Tesla
On Sunday at CES, Chinese-backed car startup Byton officially unveiled its first drivable prototype. The all-electric crossover, dubbed the SIV, arrived with its dashboard-encompassing touchscreen intact. Byton says the car will be available near the end of 2019 with the 49-inch “shared-experience” display, touchscreen steering wheel, Amazon’s Alexa, and Level 3 autonomy.
Despite a demo video featuring some cringe-worthy acting, Byton’s unveiling went off without a hitch. The company even released footage of the SIV putting around a parking lot a day early to prove that it had, in fact, build a functional prototype. But it’s promising quite a bit on a relatively narrow timeline, and we’ve seen how poorly that can play out for a Chinese-backed EV startup.
On paper, the SIV is likely to be outperformed by Tesla’s Model 3. A 201-horsepower motor in the front and a 268-hp e-mill at the rear, connected to a standard 71 kWh battery, could match the Model 3’s straight-line acceleration, but it isn’t likely to outdo its projected range. Likewise, Byton says its crossover should start at $45,000 — giving the price advantage to Tesla as well.
However, the startup feels confident it can avoid Tesla’s production problems and deliver a car that’s bigger on features and comfort. That’s tough talk from a company that is nowhere near the assembly stage. We all remember how ambitious Faraday Future was when it first appeared on the scene and what ultimately happened to its “ Tesla Killer.”
Byton’s marketing appears highly similar to what we’ve seen from the likes of Faraday and Lynk & Co. It’s heavy on tech and promises, showcasing a two-tone crossover, backed by abstract graphics and simple slogans like “Time to be.” It makes us slightly uneasy, if only because it feels so familiar. But the important thing is how it intends to actually build the car.
Presently, Byton claims to have raised around $320 million in funding and employs roughly 400 people (some of whom came from Faraday Future). While that’s great for a tech startup, it’s not enough for an automotive manufacturer seeking volume.
However, in a recent interview with Jalopnik, company executives explained they want to take a practical approach. The strategy is to work with established suppliers and be realistic about production and technology, rather than over-promising and being unable to deliver. “We’re trying to be humble and down to Earth,” Co-founder Daniel Kirchert said in response to a queries on how it would beat Tesla. “We want to have the product speak for itself.”
Perhaps, but the company is promising quite a bit already. Whether or not it’s tapping suppliers for its kit, Byton says the SIV will have things like facial recognition technology, top-tier connectivity, phone applications, an in-car app, Level 3 autonomy, onboard fitness sensors, and just about everything else you’d expect from an expensive luxury vehicle.
Promises aside, the industrial plan is for Byton to double its staff by the end of 2018, with workers streaming into its Nanjing factory as production ramps up. But production has yet to begin; the exiting prototypes were all hand-built and the Chinese plant isn’t even fully licensed by Chinese authorities yet. That’s not to say that it won’t be soon, but Byton has plenty to do before it truly hits the ground running — and fundraising will be a big part of that.
This leaves us wondering if we’ll have a legitimate automaker in the next few years or yet another example of how difficult it is to actually become one.
A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.
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