LAS VEGAS -- Chinese startup Byton says it is on track to begin mass producing its first electric vehicle in 2020 after successful trial production that kicked off late last year. Speaking ahead of the CES tech trade show in Las Vegas on Sunday, the company also announced several partnerships, including an energy storage tie-up with Japanese trading house Marubeni.
Three years after Byton revealed its concept car at CES 2018, the company was back at the annual event to unveil the production version of its M-Byte SUV.
The SUV, which features a 48-inch dashboard display, was made at Byton's 800,000-sq.-meter factory in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. The plant has produced several dozen M-Bytes since coming on line last October, Byton CEO Daniel Kirchert told the Nikkei Asian Review.
After delaying its initial plan to begin mass production in late 2019, Kichert said the company is on track to achieve that goal by the middle of this year and will start delivery to customers in China, the U.S. and Europe in the coming 18 months.
"We changed the timeline for quality control purposes. After seeing some fellow EV-makers suffering from recalling vehicles due to quality issues, we decided to take some extra time to make sure we can produce high-quality cars at scale," Kirchert said.
"We might not have a second chance, so it has to be perfect, " he added.
The company said it is in the final stages of closing a roughly $500 million round of financing after facing strong headwinds over the past year. These include a slowdown in China's EV market due to government subsidy reductions and a broader decline in vehicle demand, as well trouble at fellow Chinese EV maker NIO. The U.S.-listed company's share price plunged after issuing major recalls, and NIO's worse-than-expected losses have also shaken investor confidence in the broader industry.
In the latest fundraising round, Marubeni joined Chinese state-owned auto company FAW Group and the Nanjing Municipal Government's industrial investment fund as a first-time backer of Byton.
Byton and Marubeni also formed a partnership aimed at equipping one of the trading house's solar power plants with a 1-megawatt solar power storage unit.
"Amid the enormous changes in the auto industry, this investment and partnership with Byton is an essential part of our strategy in the automotive business," said Hajime Kawamura, CEO of Marubeni's Machinery, Infrastructure & Financial Business Group.
Cooperation between the two companies could deepen.
"In the future, we may explore the option of launching a joint venture to assemble Byton cars outside of China," said Kazuhiro Kondo, general manager of Marubeni's automotive department.
Byton also announced a partnership with global media giant ViacomCBS to provide entertainment content for the M-Byte's large dashboard screen, which can be viewed by both driver and passenger. This content partnership could help Byton compete with Tesla, which also touts its in-car entertainment offerings, though the Chinese EV-maker says it does not see the U.S. company as a competitor.
"The [global market for] high-end electric SUVs is roughly 7-8 million, and China makes up about 3 million of it, in which Tesla only sells 30,000 to 40,000 units per year. So I think our competitors are the traditional luxury carmakers, not Tesla," Kirchert said.
"Tesla doing well is good news for us," he added.
Earlier this month, Tesla cut the starting price of its China-built Model 3 sedans by 9% to 323,800 yuan ($46,500). Byton said the M-Byte will be priced around 300,000 to 400,000 yuan, making it "a very competitive alternative offering," Kirchert said.
Byton did not disclose its forecast production number for all of 2020. Its Nanjing factory has a maximum production capacity of 300,000, and the company is aiming to produce at least 150,000 units per year by 2022.
"We expect to break even by the fourth quarter of 2021 once we hit the 25,000 quarterly production target," Kirchert said.
Nikkei staff writer Kazuyuki Okudaira contributed to the story.