Inside Byton's Electric SUV Concept: Meet the Car of Tomorrow

LAS VEGAS — Byton doesn't want its cars to just be the ultimate driving experience. The much ballyhooed Chinese startup wants its cars to be the ultimate experience, period.

Introduced here at CES 2018, the Byton concept car — built by hand to show off to journalists, investors and possible partners — reconceives the in-car experience, assuming a future when drivers can turn over control of the driving tasks to onboard computers.

Byton plans to introduce its first vehicle in 2019 starting at $45,000. It will be a semi-autonomous vehicle that can drive on its own only under certain circumstances and with the driver monitoring things. In the future, an upgrade to completely self-driving software will be available.

The first production Byton will be designed as a rolling, always connected device with multiple wireless modems that anticipate over-the-air speeds of 900 Mbps and beyond. It will emphasize the in-cabin experience of passengers, with multiple independent displays and a ginormous 49-inch, wrap-around front screen that can show you social-networking connections, entertainment options and even health information. (The dashboard screen will also display speed and other driving information, almost as a second thought.)

The Byton's designers envision on-board oxygen-level and blood-pressure measuring devices that the driver (once relieved of the driving experience) can use to monitor his or her own health and fitness. The idea is turn the vehicle into a productivity-enhancing, rather than productivity-killing, device in the age of the Internet of Things.

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Thanks to built-in facial recognition, you don't need a key to enter the car. You just press a button. (The same might apply to starting the car once production models arrive.) Facial recognition also tells the vehicle who is sitting in which seat, so that the car can personalize the seat settings to the individual.

The front bucket seats can rotate around to look at the rear passengers, for example. Video cameras throughout the car can monitor each occupant, and the facial recognition will also trigger individual preferences for movies, music and temperature control. It's all accessible via voice commands, a steering wheel-mounted touch screen or by using finger- and hand-waving gestures. There are virtually no buttons in the car.

Taking an approach that diverges from Tesla's built-it-ourselves philosophy, Byton plans to use standard battery cells (certified for the Chinese market) and other off-the-shelf technology to build some of the mechanical and power-train components. What’s unique about the car are the software system and electrical management systems, plus a few nifty design touches.

For example, the team has designed a unique flat antenna to avoid putting multiple shark fins on the roof, and has conducted extensive wind-tunnel work to create a slip-stream exterior, according to spokespersons at CES.

The Byton is intended to be practical rather than a performance leader. It will go from zero to 60 mph in a respectable, but not blistering, 5 seconds, and will be able to travel 250 miles between charges. A 325-mile version will also be available.

The car is aimed squarely at the Chinese market. Founded by former BMW and Infiniti executives, the Byton company will first introduce a compact SUV model in China, and then plan to try to make it into North America.

Byton also is addressing several issues to make the car more attractive than, say, a Tesla would be to the Chinese market, including its price and the use of standardized batteries. Indeed, the company offices are divided among Santa Clara, Munich and Nanjing.

For all its attractive options, the Byton is still a concept car that bears some striking similarities to CES 2017's electric-vehicle darling, the Faraday Future car. The Future had many similar features, including an exterior facial-recognition system that automatically opened the doors, but it has been beset by multiple setbacks and has failed to meet many of its goals 12 months after its unveiling. (The Future is at this year's CES too, but it's being shown at a nearby hotel with virtually no publicity.)

Byton is bound to face significant skepticism until it gets working production models on the road. But for now, the technology inside this concept car looks and feels innovative.

Photo credits: Mark Spoonauer

John R. Quain

John R. Quain has been reviewing and testing video and audio equipment for more than 20 years. For Tom's Guide, he has reviewed televisions, HDTV antennas, electric bikes, electric cars, as well as other outdoor equipment. He is currently a contributor to The New York Times and the CBS News television program.