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Building a car for the smartphone generation

Brand-new and bristling with talent, Nanjing-based startup Byton wants the world

Daniel Kirchert says Byton plans to double its workforce to 500 people by the end of the year. (Courtesy of Byton)

TOKYO -- When Daniel Kirchert became head of Nissan Motors' luxury brand Infiniti in China in 2013, he installed three air purifiers in his small Beijing office.

He had been in China for more than 10 years, first as a rising star at BMW, where he oversaw an eightfold increase in sales as senior vice president of sales and marketing, and later at Infiniti.

The German executive has had a soft spot for China ever since visiting the country 20 years ago to study the language. His wife is Chinese, and he is never shy to show how fluent he is in Mandarin. Yet he was well aware of China's shortcomings -- including its dangerous levels of air pollution.

Listening to the three air purifiers humming in his office every hour of every day, Kirchert had little doubt that a day would come when Beijing would not be able to tolerate more gasoline engines on its streets -- especially given Beijing's support for cleaner cars.

So when he met his former colleague Carsten Breitfeld in Hong Kong one day at the end of 2015, it did not take long before the two began talking about the potential of electric cars. Breitfeld is a world-renowned expert in electro-mobility and headed BMW's plug-in hybrid i8 program as the German automaker's vice president.

By the spring of 2016, the two had launched an electric vehicle startup, Future Mobility (now called Byton), in China.

"Two or three years ago, I never thought there would be a chance to do something on my own. The car industry is such a traditional industry, such a high-entry ticket. But things happened fast," Kirchert told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview.

Kirchert and Breitfeld agreed that they could bring their first commercial car to the market by the end of 2019, and have stuck to that initial timeline ever since.

Growing fast

They hired talent from Google, Tesla and BMW. Now with 250 employees, Byton plans to double to 500 people by the end of the year as they steam ahead toward commercial production. They have raised $320 million so far; current shareholders include Byton's founding team, Harmony Auto, Aulton Investments, League Automotive Technologies, Legend Capital and Chengtun Group.

Newcomer Byton plans to pack its first car -- slated for release at the end of 2019 -- with touch panels and a steering wheel with face- and emotion-recognition capabilities. (Courtesy of Byton)

The concept of their car is a smart, connected vehicle. Fully flat floors, rotating seats, touch panels and steering wheels with face and emotion recognition are some of the features.

"The new Chinese generation, those born after 1990, have grown up living with smart devices. They want their car to be a connected device," Kirchert said.

China's young affluent consumers currently drive the BMW X3, Audi Q5 and the Mercedes-Benz GLC. But Kirchert sees a "tipping point" approaching when these consumers switch to connected electric vehicles. "I am very much convinced that electric vehicles will replace gasoline engines in 10 to 15 years," he said.

Kirchert knew from his years at BMW and Nissan in China that business is never independent of politics.

Breitfeld and Kirchert, the chairman and president of Byton, respectively, agreed to set up the manufacturing plant in the eastern city of Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. From that location, they plan to sell their cars in China, the U.S. and Europe.

Borrowing the idea from BMW's plant in Shenyang, China, part of the conveyor belt will be visible from the offices and internal courtyard so that employees and visitors alike can "experience the sensation of their cars being manufactured," Byton said at the groundbreaking ceremony in September.

Kirchert knows there are risks to starting a new car company, but he said he could not pass up a chance to participate in a transformative moment in the industry.

"Sometimes you need to trust your instincts," he said. "There are a million reasons not to do what we're doing, but I believe in this."

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