(Wired)– Two of the most intriguing, young companies in the molting auto industry have joined forces to produce a sleek, screen-stuffed, self-driving SUV by 2020. And it’ll be fully electric, too, with a 300-mile range that matches the most long-legged of Teslas.
It’s a bold ambition to be sure, but on paper, not such a crazy one. The car bits come from Byton, the newly launched Chinese automaker that showed its first prototype at CES last month. The ride comes stuffed with a 49-inch screen and a bevy of buzzy keywords: connected, shared, transformative, and above all, smart.
“The electric car story is already done,” says Byton CEO Carsten Breitfeld. The shift away from gasoline and diesel is underway, as government incentives and technological advances hurry it along. A fierce battery pack isn’t enough to stand out in the auto industry anymore, he says. “We want to be the first real smart car.”
In the car business, as in the rest of the tech world, “smart” is a facile catchall term, easily molded to whatever chunk of metal and computer somebody promises will make life easier and less complicated. But in the deal announced today, Breitfeld has started to offer specifics on a key part of his vision.
To make the autonomy bit of its equation work, Byton is bringing in a ringer. It just signed a deal with Aurora.
The self-driving car startup is a newcomer in a field Google launched nearly a decade ago, but its three leaders come with CVs that boost it to the front of the pack: Chris Urmson helped launch the self-driving team at Google, then ran it for several years; Sterling Anderson used to lead Tesla’s Autopilot program; Drew Bagnell helped command Uber’s self-driving effort.
Aurora, which has already announced partnerships with Volkswagen and Hyundai, won’t build its own vehicles—it’s purely a software shop.
So it’s a good match for Byton, which has no intention of trying to figure out how to make its electric cars drive themselves. And by making this move early, before it has finalized its vehicle design, Byton can work with Aurora to integrate the necessary sensors and computers seamlessly into its car, rather than just slapping them on the roof.
But Byton’s late entry into the auto industry gives it a bigger advantage: Even better, because it hasn’t spent decades shaping itself to serve any particular type of customer, Byton can quickly adapt to a changing landscape. It will make cars for people to own (likely in small numbers, to start), because individual car ownership isn’t anywhere near dead yet.
They’ll be electric and come with some level of autonomy, Breitfeld says, though he’s not sure yet exactly how they’ll compare to systems available today, which require constant human supervision and can’t handle things like stopped firetrucks on the freeway. Byton will also “use the car as a platform,” Breitfeld says, to offer digital content to those inside, or access to their eyes and ears for advertisers.
And it will operate cars in fleets, or sell them to people who want to operate them in fleets. “If you don’t do so, you will miss a big part of the market,” Breitfeld says. Those cars will be of the truly driverless variety, the sort without steering wheels or pedals, and run all day, likely in a taxi-like service. “We will extend into mobility,” he says—dropping the buzziest of auto industry buzzwords.
(Existing car makers are hampered by their need to nurture their legacy business model—selling regular cars with steering wheels and gas pedals—so they tend to offer watered down capabilities, like semi-autonomous systems that can control the car on the highway, with the human supervising, in cars they market to individual buyers.
Even Tesla, barely a decade old, is locked in this paradigm: Elon Musk talks about a future of shared, autonomous, electric vehicles, but that future depends on his ability to crank out and sell hundreds of thousands of Model 3 sedans every year.)
And for Aurora, teaming up with Byton could offer access to this young automaker’s homeland. China, the world’s largest auto market, suffers some 260,000 traffic deaths every year, and just recently started to allow self-driving testing on some roads.
Aurora’s not headed there just yet: This deal is for US-bound cars, and to move to China, Aurora would have to adapt its software to an environment where drivers and conditions are very different from those in America. But you can see how partnering with a Chinese automaker is a good way to establish yourself in a potentially huge market—one that favors homegrown companies.
Because the most important buzzword in a changing auto industry isn’t smart, connected, or even mobility. It’s flexibility.