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Radical new approaches to automotive design focus on the passenger experience, and could challenge the status quo on the roads.

One example is the M-Byte S.U.V. from Byton, a Chinese startup with an engineering office in Silicon Valley. The centrepiece is a digital screen, called the M-Byte Stage, which runs the entire width of the dashboard. The idea is to create an immersive in-vehicle media experience. “From Day 1, everything for the M-Byte was designed around the screen,” said Florian Baur, Director of Product Management. This approach to automotive design marks a shift in emphasis from the form of the exterior to the experience of the interior.

The media immersion extends to a touch-screen built into the steering wheel, along with a tablet in the centre console and screens in the backs of the headrests. The screens can be controlled by touch-screen buttons and knobs, and by the car’s occupants, in the form of voice commands, hand gestures, and the driver’s eye movements, captured by a camera. Safety features address the potential of distracted driving: Onscreen content is shown at nearly full display when the car is stopped, but will pause if the vehicle starts moving, and stop if the driver tries to watch.

“We’re not trying to do something too fashionable,” said Byton’s VP of Design, Benoît Jacob. “What’s interesting for me is not how to design the bumper or the outward silhouette of the car but, instead, what can you really do in this car on the move?” Jacob was previously VP of Design at BMW, where he worked on the i3 and i8 electric cars, the latter of which was featured in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.”

Byton has raised about $820 million since its founding in 2016. It plans to debut the M-Byte in China this year, and in the U.S. in 2021. “The industry is challenged to come up with new solutions,” said Jacob. “But it doesn’t mean that now the industry has a lone single solution.”

Another innovative electric car design, with a completely different take, comes from Los Angeles automotive startup Canoo. It is introducing a car designed to be what lead car designer Richard Kim calls a “lounge on wheels.” Other than a phone dock, the Canoo is screen-free. Because it is all electric, it doesn’t need an engine bay or hood. This, along with the car’s capsule-like shape, maximize the interior space. “The front and rear seats are like living room furniture,” Kim said.

Canoo also takes a fresh approach with its business model: The cars will be available by monthly subscription only. The company plans to announce the price of its subscription or “membership” in mid-2021, and roll out the car itself about six months later. There is currently a waitlist. Further plans include a line of cabins for commuter or delivery vehicles, or for use in ride-share businesses.

CEO Ulrich Kranz was Head of BMW i at BMW Group, the same division that employed Kim and Jacob to imagine the urban car of the future, according to the New York Times. Both trained at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA, the alma mater of some of the world’s top car designers. Stewart Reed, Chairman of the Transportation Design Department, remarked on the emerging powertrain technologies, manufacturing methods and digital interfaces, saying that a growing list of automotive startups are finally breaking up the monotony of today’s roadway.

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