Chinese based car company Byton first concept all-electric vehicle

The driver’s airbag is located just below the 8-inch screen at the center of the steering wheel.

There were many questions I had before, during, and after the unveiling of Chinese car company Byton’s concept EV earlier this week at CES. It’s a tease of what’s to come from the production model, which will arrive in late 2019 and start at $45,000. After seeing it up close, getting a short ride in it, and speaking to a few of the folks who work for the company, many of those questions remain unanswered.

But I brought closure to a few questions, including the one that was bugging me, and a number of other folks on the internet: when the center of your car’s steering wheel is occupied by a touchscreen tablet interface, where do you put the thing that’s supposed to keep your face from getting smashed? Now we know.

On Sunday, Byton revealed a concept SUV that, first and foremost, is defined by the wild and massive display that spans the entire dashboard. It’s so ludicrously big that I could rehash the different ways to measure it over and over again until my flight out of Las Vegas on Saturday. It’s 49 inches — or more than a meter — wide and almost 10 inches tall. It has a resolution of 3840 x 720, and a brightness of 1,000 nits.

That amounts to a screen that is fairly sharp, vividly colorful, and was hard to keep my eyes off of. It’s also slightly curved, which adds to the effect of the screen peeling off into your periphery. One thing that helps is that the entire dashboard sits lower than normal, so that the screen doesn’t block the view of the road. But even with that, the many early concerns over the screen being a distraction are valid.

This screen dominated the brief amount of time that I spent with the Byton concept. Florian Baur, who is the director of product management for the company, walked me through a demo some of the menus, features, and different interaction methods that the screen offers.

The most useful part of the screen, from what I saw, was that Byton’s splitting it up into “panels.” The middle and far right section can be used to entertain passengers by displaying music and other media, host video calls, or show navigation. The section in front of the driver will be mostly dedicated to information required to operate the vehicle — namely, things like speed and battery.

Photo by Sean O’Kane 

The most novel part of this section is a widget that shows the live feeds from cameras on the sides and rear of the Byton. These feeds show up on the display just below a driver’s line of sight out of the cockpit, and act as stand-ins for the side and rear view mirrors. It’s a decision that might fly in some, but certainly not all, parts of the world, as many regulators require the use of mirrors.

My demo was driven mostly by the gesture controls, which weren’t refined enough at this point in time to enable confident, or even accurate, movement through the car’s menus. There are a few main gestures for interacting with the Byton UI. The simplest is pointing your finger at the gesture-tracking cameras, which are located at the bottom center of the dash. You pivot your finger to control a circular cursor on the screen, but the accuracy was glaringly not 1:1.

The other interactions were hard to discern because they simply weren’t working well. Byton has a ways to go to in order to get this part of the experience right, especially because the cockpit is so sparse. Physical buttons are a good fallback for wonky gesture controls, but Byton has eschewed almost all of them in its concept. There are a few on either side of the steering wheel’s screen, and there will be a few stalks on the steering column in the final model.

Photo by Sean O’Kane

But wait! We got a ride in the car, so what’s that like?

The Byton concept boasts good, if not earth-shattering, performance specs. The motors whir a little loudly, but in the tiny section of the parking lot that the company was allotted to perform these drives, it felt quick in the same way most EVs do. In a straight line, though, the car just as quickly hit some kind of limit; either a software limit purposely put in place on the drivetrain performance itself, or my driver’s forgivable hesitance as he tried to keep us from running through the fence.

(For what it’s worth, I think it’s a combination of both. I was told that we were riding in the higher-performance spec of the Byton concept, which means we should have been feeling 476 horsepower underneath us. But I was also told that, since multiple Byton employees were performing these drives, the power had been dialed back.

The seats in front were comfortable, and — thanks to the lack of a center console — there’s almost enough leg room to make you feel like you’re in first class. Doubly so when Baur pivoted the two front seats inward 12 degrees with a tap on the touchscreen.

Touches like this, as well as the screen-forward design, all stem from the fact that Byton is aiming at the Chinese market first, according to executive director of UI design Wolfram Luchner. “Driving is not always very pleasureful in China, and most of the time you’re not moving,” he says. “If you spend four or five hours a day in traffic, you’ll want these comforts.”

There are other things I’d love to fuss around with more, like the smartphone docks that live on the inside of each door, which are the only way (in the back seat, at least) to control certain things like seat position. There was no demo of any of the facial recognition tech, though I was told it won’t constantly be active, if you were worried. And I’d love to have gotten a moment to pore over the rest of the interior, which was roomy for an SUV that’s on the smaller size.

But there just wasn’t enough time. Byton was ramping up a long line of drives and demos, and everyone there seemed slightly overwhelmed at the attention being paid to this previously obscure startup.

The same could be said for the press event on Sunday, which brimmed with attendees. At one point, when the crowd was poking and prodding the three prototypes on stage, a Byton employee had to ask people to step back from the cars because there was a worry that the stage would collapse.

There hasn’t exactly been a frenzy over Byton this week, and plenty of show-goers will probably make it through CES without seeing or even hearing about the car. And maybe that’s by design. Byton has built some wild ideas into the concept version of its first car, but the company has played a pretty calm hand. With Tesla’s constant braying, and Faraday Future still smoldering, that’s somewhat of a relief.