New carmaker on the block: Byton’s CEO on China’s car of the future

Carsten Breitfeld, an industry veteran turned disruptor, explains how his Chinese-conceived, globally oriented start-up is tuned for the emerging mobility transformation

Carsten Breitfeld, an industry veteran turned disruptor, explains how his Chinese-conceived, globally oriented start-up is tuned for the emerging mobility transformation. 

Byton aims to transform the way consumers experience mobility—while simultaneously upending the way car companies do business. The Nanjing-headquartered automaker, cofounded in 2016 by Carsten Breitfeld and Daniel Kirchert (industry veterans of BMW and Infiniti, respectively), recently announced plans to introduce an SUV launched with “level 3” autonomy (meaning conditional automation based on specific operating conditions), followed swiftly by a sedan and a seven-passenger vehicle that will be launched with level-4 autonomy (meaning it can drive safely without human intervention). The SUV will debut in China toward the end of 2019, with US and European launches to follow in mid-2020.

Cofounder and CEO Carsten Breitfeld recently sat down with McKinsey’s Allen Webb to explain Byton’s vision, the advantages of operating in China, and the characteristics of the new mobility ecosystem that will emerge worldwide.

The Quarterly: Byton is sometimes seen as a lot like Tesla—a company seeking to enter the market from scratch with a luxury electric vehicle. What do you think of the comparison?

Carsten Breitfeld: It’s not precise at all. Byton was created to be a provider of mobility. Earnings will come from selling mobility, not just selling cars. Byton is about electric cars that are smart, connected, and autonomous. The car will become a platform—a smart device on wheels. This platform can be used to sell digital content generated from data, and those products will be designed for shared mobility.

The Quarterly: You spent two decades at BMW before leaving to found Byton in 2016. Where have industry developments brought us since you started?

Carsten Breitfeld: We are coming to a tipping point. It’s not only the products that will change but also the business models. The traditional car companies will build electric cars, and great electric cars, without any doubt. But when it comes to rethinking the user experience for smart cars, they have it much harder. The culture and mind-set you need is more about consumer electronics and software and the internet and less about the car industry. And the biggest hurdle is to implement new business models. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to change the business model completely in an organization of 100,000 or 300,000 people who are trained to develop a car, build it, and sell it. This is the reason I eventually decided to take the chance to build something new. Leaving a great company like BMW was not an easy decision.

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SOURCE: McKinsey & Company

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