Here’s something we haven’t been able to say since 2012—the best electric car in the world might not bear the Tesla badge. I use the word “might” because the just-launched 2021 Lucid Air is still in its prototype-assembly stage. And I’ve only been a passenger in one. However, in recently riding in the back of a prototype for 450 real-world miles during a demonstration of the Air’s driving range (it wound up going an epic 490 miles—within 5 percent of its unofficial, EPA-replicating 517-mile test), I got a real glimpse at what the Lucid can do.
Those impressions were cemented during a ride-along in the “Speed Car” for hot laps around WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where its savage acceleration made the 1,080-hp electric vehicle’s claimed 2.5-second sprint to 60 mph and reported 9.9-second quarter-mile time entirely believable. Then there were the even dizzier laps around the track in a prototype of the monster Tri-Motor version (one motor up front, two motors in back), which beat the time set by the Model S Plaid and now holds the California track’s EV record.
Finally, I observed a calmer lap with Lucid’s chief executive officer and chief technology officer, Peter Rawlinson, at the wheel, giving me a chance to examine a prototype with a finished interior; every square inch is creatively sculpted in textures and tones, much more than Tesla’s showcase touchscreen floating in square yards of molded plastics. When all the driving is done, the Air’s 900-volt electrical architecture allows a charging rate that adds as much as 300 miles of range in 20 minutes at one of Electrify America’s 350-kW stations.
2021 Lucid Air: Design and Technology
The Air doesn’t edge out every one of its competitors in range, acceleration, aerodynamics, and charging. It mops the floor with them. Which is precisely what Lucid set out to do from the start.
On one of my early trips to Lucid’s HQ, I found Rawlinson standing near a prototype Air chassis. “The Model S was a good first shot,” he said, “but that hatch hurt the rigidity too much. I’m fixing all the mistakes I made with it.” Yes, Rawlinson also architected Elon Musk’s Model S, the most pivotal EV in history. Unlike the Model S, his Air has an unusual clamshell trunk opening. As he talked, I wondered if the Air was just an update of the Model S. Not so.
“Model S was actually styled before I joined Tesla,” Rawlinson noted at the time. “My task was to retrospectively fit all the bits into it. What I learned is that to capitalize on the miniaturization of the electric powertrain requires interaction between design and engineering. This was missed in the Model S; it wasn’t designed around the miniaturization of the electric powertrain. It was designed to be a cool-looking car. No one knew then what could be achieved by miniaturizing.”
Rawlinson’s Air is a holistic rethink of the electric automobile’s starting point. Miniaturizing the drivetrain’s size and maximizing its efficiency and integration were the Air’s first tipped dominos in a subsequent cascade of compounding benefits. Maybe not coincidentally, it’s also a distant echo of Colin Chapman’s (of Rawlinson’s alma mater Lotus) famous credo of “add lightness.”
2021 Lucid Air: Motors and Packaging
Dialing the system to 900 volts shrinks the electrical components and raises their efficiency. (Power equals voltage times current, so higher voltage allows lower current, and this allows all wiring to shrink—which is why utilities transmit power at extremely high voltages.) The resulting motors can each produce 600 hp, though they’re detuned and power-biased to the rear. The higher-efficiency permanent-magnet type motors are freakishly small, spin at ultra-high rpm, and rank as the most power-dense in the world.
The current wisdom with dual-motor drivetrains is that during low-power, light-load cruising, one of the two motors is either an induction motor, which can be deactivated (as Tesla does) or a permanent-magnet motor that can be de-clutched (as in the Porsche Taycan). Although some speculate that the absence of the latter is a reason for the iffy range of the Jaguar I-Pace, Lucid has tuned its motors to reduce light-load losses enough to (obviously) skirt this.
Rawlinson coordinated with Lucid chief designer Derek Jenkins (ex-Mazda chief designer and shaper of the current Miata) so that the compact components were carefully incorporated into what they’re calling the Space Concept—unlocking an almost optical illusion of interior room. For instance, the similar-length Model S occupies 4 percent more space than the Air, while the Lucid creates 6 percent more passenger space.
2021 Lucid Air: Battery Pack Fit
Unlike the Model S’s monolithic, rectangular battery, the Air’s battery is more three-dimensionally tailored to its space, with small, second-floor stacks of its 21,700 cells (shaped like the ones the Model 3 uses) under the center console and rear seat, plus removable modules for a future second-row “foot garage” in a cheaper, shorter-range variant. In total, there are 22 of these 300-cell modules. At the front is a frunk so large that it could swallow the three most spacious EV frunks out there…combined.
Standing in front of a naked semi-stripped chassis, Rawlinson points out how the air-conditioning compressor is nestled next to the front motor, but at a 90-degree angle to avoid cross-talk between their torque-inducing electric fields. Unlike the Model S, the entire ventilation system is pancaked ahead of the firewall for quietness and interior space.
Doubling as a cross member at the firewall is the “Wunderbox,” a multifunction charging unit. There’s onboard AC charging at 19.2 kW all the way up to those 350-kW DC fast chargers. The bi-directional Lucid Connected home charging station also can recast the Air as a temporary energy source for your home.
The Air’s ride is via an air suspension. What appears to be the front suspension’s upper and lower A-arms are actually four virtual-axis links. The steering’s assist motor has an internal redundancy to behave as two separate motors as a failsafe for future hands-free, Level 3 autonomy—something anticipated by a (rare) lidar unit below the car’s prow. It’s part of 32 radar, video, and lidar sensors that constitute Lucid’s eventual Dream Drive driver assistance system.
Rawlinson is adamant: “People think it’s all about batteries.” He makes an expression of wonderment. “They’re simply things that provide some energy and voltage. It’s what you do with those that’s everything.”
2021 Lucid Air: A Low Drag Coefficient
In order to exemplify how the Air achieves its world-best 0.21 Cd, Jenkins and I get on our hands and knees. He points to how far forward along the car’s underbody its diffuser begins to subtly rise to avoid separation. The bottom rear of the battery is actually modified to allow this. Rawlinson adds: “We’re at about 4.6 miles per kWh; my goal is 5 [miles].” Relentless perfectionism.
Years ago, during my original visit to Lucid (then Atieva), located a stone’s throw from Tesla’s Fremont HQ, Rawlinson speculated that the Air would ultimately exceed 300 miles of range. His estimate has turned out to be a bit modest. In the interim, however, Lucid had key employees poached. It nearly went out of business. Then came the billion-dollar infusion from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. Now comes the nearly complete $700 million factory in Casa Grande, Arizona—the first “greenfield” EV manufacturing facility in the United States. It has been a roller coaster ride.
The Lucid Air might be the best EV in the world. The trouble is, Tesla is more than an electric car now. It’s an Apple-like environment of in-car karaoke and Supercharger stations and fleet-sourced machine learning of the world’s roads to accelerate full self-driving.
Rawlinson knows his Lucid still has shortcomings at launch: “We have the ability to over-the-air update. But we have to start with the car.”
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