The electric-vehicle industry is littered with the remains of startups that dreamed big before quickly going bankrupt. In the US, only Tesla has been able to survive past the early stages of production.
That record, though, hasn’t stopped a new generation of EV makers from promising a wave of vehicles they say will be more powerful, spacious, and technologically advanced than their gas-powered rivals. The primary question these companies face is whether any of them can turn their grand ambitions into a viable business.
Unlike many of his competitors, Lucid Motors CEO Peter Rawlinson can point to experience. He led the development of Tesla’s Model S sedan, which debuted in 2012 and is already recognized as one of the mostimportant vehicles in automotive history. Now Rawlinson’s back with the Lucid Air sedan, which is scheduled to start battling the Model S and other electric sedans next year.
Rawlinson said the Air would stand apart from the EVs on the market, none of which has an interior that can match the comfort and material quality of a Mercedes-Benz, Audi, or BMW.
“The luxury cars that are available are gasoline-powered,” he said.
Lucid plans to change that.
More interior space than a Model S or Porsche Taycan
But Rawlinson doesn’t want to merely imitate the German automakers. The Air takes a sleeker, more minimalist approach to automotive luxury, one he compares to business-class seats on an airplane.
EVs have a built-in advantage over gas-powered vehicles in the amount of interior space they can free up for passengers since they have fewer parts under the hood and floor pan to design around. But Rawlinson said the Air would set a benchmark, even by EV standards. It will combine an exterior footprint smaller than that of a Model S or Porsche Taycan, with an interior more spacious than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan, he said.
The key was shrinking the Air’s powertrain, which includes its battery pack, motor, transmission, and inverter, without compromising on performance. The Air’s listed specs compare favorably with the Model S and Taycan: over 400 miles of range, a 0 to 60 mph time under 2.5 seconds, and what Lucid calls the best aerodynamic efficiency of any luxury car.
Though it won’t become clear until 2021 if the Air is as good as advertised, part of Lucid’s powertrain technology has already won the support of performance-minded drivers. Since 2018, the company has been the official battery-pack supplier of the Formula E electric-vehicle racing league (McLaren Applied makes the battery cells). Before Lucid won that contract, drivers would have to switch vehicles midrace just to reach the finish line; now they can go the distance on a single charge.
The Air will start at over $100,000
Making a high-capacity battery pack is just one step in the expensive and complicated process of building an electric vehicle. SomeEV startups, like Fisker Inc., plan to pay other companies to handle manufacturing for them. For Rawlinson, the appeal of outsourcing production — avoiding the enormous cost and complexity of building and running an automotive factory — is offset by the risk that the partnership doesn’t work.
“You might call me a control freak, but why partner with someone who is less incentivized for success than you are?” Rawlinson said. “If manufacturing fails, the company fails.”
Lucid is now installing equipment in its Arizona factory, which Rawlinson said would be able to make 34,000 vehicles annually (Tesla made 364,000 in 2019; Mercedes-Benz made 2.4 million) in its first few years. Rawlinson hopes the company will be making 1 million vehicles a year by 2028, he said.
Part of the reason Lucid decided to debut with a luxury sedan — the company will follow the Air with an SUV built on the same platform — was to make it easier to become profitable at lower production volumes. The battery pack is the most expensive part of an EV, and while battery costs have declined rapidly in the past decade, they’re still high enough that Lucid will need to sell the Air at a premium. Rawlinson said the car would start “well north” of $100,000.
“We’ve got to be reasonably profitable as an entity in order to attract investment, in order to exist,” Rawlinson said.
But Lucid also wants to make the best possible first impression. If Rawlinson is right about the company’s technology and interior design, an expensive car with an incomparable interior experience will provide the best opportunity to show them off.
“We’re creating a car which is going to be the best car in the world,” he said. “People are going to want it.”