What Tesla’s bull run and an EV start-up tell me about the future of driving

A few weeks ago, I got acquainted with the Byton M-Byte, an electric SUV that is the brainchild of a crew of alums from establishments such as Apple, BMW and Tesla. This week, I got to drive one.

Byton, a three-year-old company, opened a factory in the Chinese city of Nanjing earlier this year with funding from local businesses and the government, becoming one of the latest to join an increasingly crowded and mature market for electric vehicles. The SUV is being marketed as a "smart device on wheels" because of the 48-inch screen that makes up the dashboard and the tablets built in on the steering wheel, centre console and passenger seats.

The car will have functionality we are used to seeing in smartphones: facial recognition and an app store that serves up content streaming and tailored suggestions based on our schedules or activity goals. The M-Byte will be sold with 4G connectivity but is 5G-ready when the infrastructure is available. It can also achieve Level 3 autonomy – matching Tesla – which means it can handle highway-driving and lane-changing but requires constant human attention to resume control. As autonomous driving capabilities improve and the regulatory environment matches the pace of change, Byton can push software updates to its customers in much the same way apps are updated on our phones today.

The first cars will be sold in China by the end of this year. The Byton team has been in the UAE for the better part of a month courting investors and distribution partners as it eyes other markets, such as the Middle East.

During that time, the stock price of its eventual main competitor, Tesla, has been on a hot streak. In a recent note, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas updated his bull case for Tesla to $1,200 per share, amending a previous case he made for $650 after coming around to the idea that the company could become a primary battery supplier to electric car makers.

It took Tesla nearly a decade to be taken quite this seriously.

The mainstreaming of the electric vehicle market means that newcomers like Byton will have to also prioritise autonomous capabilities and leading-edge technology in order to compete with Tesla. It is not enough to be battery-powered and that too, is changing the look and feel of the way we drive.

But just as there are people who prefer reading an actual book over powering up a Kindle, or who have opted out of Instagram or wearing an activity tracker like a FitBit, there will be people who opt out of this kind of experience.

We will not wake up one morning with an autonomous vehicle in our driveway, ready to whisk us to our first appointment as we sit passively in a reclining seat, using a 5G connection to beam into our first meeting as a hologram. Unless we want to.

As I drove my safe and sturdy Volkswagen Passat to give the M-Byte a whirl on an out-of-the-way stretch of Dubai road, I thought about how much I love to drive.

Being in the car – the lull, the passive attention it requires – is when I have some of the best conversations with my mother. I got engaged while on a road trip through Yellowstone National Park. I chose to commute to Dubai every day from Abu Dhabi for three entire years.

While I will embrace an option to plug in rather than gas up, I will be slower to embrace yet another screen in front of my face or giving up control behind the wheel.

Such car consumers will be among us in the decade to come, but they will not be all of us.

Kelsey Warner is the Future Editor at The National

Updated: March 3, 2020 05:58 PM


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