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January 11, 2018

Inside Byton’s experience-driven SUV concept

by John_A

It’s difficult spinning up a car company basically out of thin air. Byton is not only trying to accomplish that, but it’s going against over 100 years of automotive history by highlighting the the car’s interior over the horsepower and handling. Yes, other luxury automakers also tout the poshness of their interiors, but Byton has decided to go even further: It hopes to lure customers with an SUV it refers to as a “smart device.” You know, like your phone.

The centerpiece of this plan is the massive 49-inch Shared Experience Display (SED, for short). Nothing else the Byton Concept offers either inside or out demands your attention like that giant screen. It’s the center of the company’s entire business plan to create a “smart intuitive vehicle.” Naturally, I wanted to see if it’s worth the hype.

Initially, the demo of the car also involved actually being driven around in it. Journalists are typically not trusted behind the wheels of multi-million dollar prototype vehicles and in this case, it’s all about the passenger experience anyway, so it made sense. Then the skies opened up and dropped rain on the usually dry Las Vegas; Byton was not keen to trust their concept car on wet roads during a downpour. So with the car nestled in a tent, I sat down to get to know the car better, all while sitting still.

In real life, the screen feels larger than photos of it let on. It’s all-encompassing and difficult to ignore. Actually, you can’t ignore it. The demo of the system only involved gesture controls which worked about 70 percent of the time, which is expected with a prototype. At launch, it will also include input by touch via the steering wheel-based tablet and voice commands. In fact, those last two control interfaces are how the average person will use the system while driving.

Even though the SUV is meant for an autonomous world, at launch in China in 2019, the driver will still have to pay attention at least most of the time until 2021 when the SUV is updated to Level 4 autonomy. Plus, gesture controls are notoriously fickle. Add the bumps of a pot-holed filled road and now your hand is all over the place in the space in front of the camera.

Plus, using the system requires your eyes to leave the road for far too long while you’re driving. With your voice and the touchscreen, that’s less of an issue.

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The UI itself is clearly focused on the car driving itself. Access to videos, on-screen segments that can be enlarged shrunk by the driver, and of course the health information it shares can be a huge distraction. All that is great when you’re relaxing instead of tackling traffic. Even though the car is expected to ship with Level 3 autonomy at launch, the driver will probably still be spending a lot of time driving while behind the wheel.

That creates a sort of weird growing pain for Byton when it launches its electric SUV. It wants to compete with the smartphone in the car. The infotainment system is meant to be an experience to keep you occupied while the self-driving car navigates the city for you. From my brief demo it looks like it will deliver on that goal. But at launch, the system might have to be toned down to appease regulators concerned about safety. It’ll be interesting to see how new customers will feel about that if the system is squelched when they buy their new Byton.

Click here to catch up on the latest news from CES 2018.

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