Its most notable innovation was the UI: Instead of a dashboard, there was a 48-inch curved touchscreen. The interface eschewed traditional buttons in favor of touch (via a touchscreen in the steering wheel), gesture, and voice.
It was also totally nuts. Byton's high-tech dashboard was an interesting idea, but it was so unlike anything in today's cars that bringing it to a production model seemed years, if not decades away.
Well, it may be coming a lot sooner than that. At CES 2019, Byton said its cockpit-like driving experience will be coming this year, a key feature of its M-Byte production model. The electric car, which Byton only started designing a little over two years ago, will be "on the road" by the end of 2019, company executives said.
"This is not science fiction," Byton CEO Carsten Breitfeld said at the event. "This is what the Byton M-Byte will deliver.”
It's hard to believe. Partly because we've heard this story before: Innovative new car company seeks to combine tech and cars in a new and interesting way (in part to capitalize on all the hype surrounding Tesla), has a splashy debut at CES, then follows up the following year with even more pomp and circumstance.
That was the story of Faraday Future, a company that proved to be virtually all smoke and mirrors, and now serves mostly as a cautionary tale. And yes, it's not entirely fair to judge one company on the sins of another, but car companies are notoriously hard to create and sustain, and the long development process makes it difficult to discern between hollow marketing machines and legit operators.
Which one is Byton? We won't know until December. But give them credit for ambition: From over-the-air updates to Amazon Alexa in the dash to 5G connectivity, I don't think the company missed a single automotive tech trend in its presentation. It also rolled out some EV stats that compare very favorably to Tesla's —325-mile range, a 95 kilowatt-hour battery, and the ability to absorb an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes.
But it's hard to get past the wacky interior. Even putting the Faraday Future concerns aside, there's another reason to be skeptical: The system is patently ridiculous — at least for today's roads. Putting a curved display the size of seven iPads right under the windshield is crazy enough, but expecting the driver to use a tablet-like touchscreen in the center of the steering wheel sounds like a recipe for disaster. And there's even another screen, an 8-inch touchscreen in the center console, ostensibly for the passenger.
Certainly, the system would be optimized to not distract the driver while he or she is actually driving, but such a large screen is so inherently visual that even minor changes could easily get overwhelming. And while the steering wheel wisely keeps a few physical buttons, it's mostly about the touchscreen. Byton even showed how someone could send and receive texts on the system. That doesn't seem… smart.
Of course, all of this would be just fine in a self-driving car, and indeed Byton says the M-Byte will have Level 3 autonomy (which means it drives itself in specific situations, like highways). That would be great if the car would actually be self-driving the moment you buy it, but there are little things like regulations and software updates that have to come first. And even if the laws had caught up, there are many driving conditions where self-driving wouldn't be an option.
In other words, the Byton M-Byte is a car of the future, not the present. It as much as says so in its marketing, with the whole thrust of the future being "about time" and giving customers more "time to be" while they drive — the obvious implication being that the goal is for the car to drive itself, thus giving the driver all their time back.
It's a laudable goal, and it's great that Byton is re-imagining the car interior for the self-driving era. But by bringing its space-age console to the road so early, the Byton M-Byte could serve as a different kind of cautionary tale: that flashy futuristic dashboards and today's (human) drivers don't mix.