A man envisions a future of electric cars, starting with a high-powered, six-figure, midsize super sedan, followed by a platform-sharing SUV, then migrating to smaller, more affordable vehicles in mass quantities. Sales will mostly be handled online (thanks to a virtual reality app), with a scattering of factory-run boutique stores in tiny enclaves. Service will be done via a remote van.
If it reads a little like Tesla’s playbook, it’s because Peter Rawlinson, the chief executive officer and chief technology office of Lucid Motors, was once Elon Musk’s engineering czar before venturing out on his own. He just wants to build a better mousetrap.
It’s also basic business strategy: You have to pay off your initial investors, and selling high-zoot luxury cars delivers larger margins than trying to pinch pennies selling zillions of small, affordable EVs.
Lucid, which officially rolled out its Air sedan and teased its forthcoming Gravity SUV on September 9, has modest aspirations for the first couple years of manufacturing, which starts in spring 2021. Lucid forecasts about 80,000 units in 2023 once a sub-$100,000 variant of the Air, as well as the production SUV, hit the market. But Rawlinson wants to grow to 360,000 units a year in 2026, when a smaller, more affordable vehicle arrives. Other factories around the globe are slated to fire up in 2027, just when Lucid would hit the million-units-per-year mark.
All of Lucid’s key technology is developed in-house; by contrast, key elements of the Porsche Taycan come from integrating tech developed by Schaeffler, Hitachi, and Magneti Marelli. Sure, Lucid employs the traditional supplier chain where needed, such as procuring the physical battery cells from LG Chem, but the core EV technology is via the Lucid engineering team.
And while a Tesla interior might be charitably described as spartan, the luxe Lucid has the Bauhaus feel of something crafted in Bavaria, but with a California touch. There’s no giant Tesla-style screen crowding your view. And there are sufficient redundant knobs and buttons in addition to the digital controls from the narrow, curved touchscreen digital instrument panel (and center-waterfall tablet), to reduce driver distraction.
“We pay an insidious attention to detail, almost at an atomic level. I don’t do mediocrity,” Rawlinson says. Yes, that’s how an engineer-CEO talks. And also how an engineer-CEO thinks, such as the fact merely squeezing the keyfob activates features when approaching the car. Facial recognition starts the car. (There’s a manual login for valet mode.)
One area Lucid won’t touch: fully autonomous driving. Sure, the Air will have the requisite smart cruise systems. But forget Autopilot, Rawlinson says: “We’re concentrating on the [electric vehicle] fundamentals while everyone is looking at the sexy thing. That technology is going to cost $10 billion over 10 years.”
Lucid is far from alone in having grand EV aspirations. China has more than a few EV startups, some of whom we’ve mentioned in these pages: Byton, Nio, and even Polestar, the Sino-Swedish brand jointly owned by Volvo and Geely. Then there are the lesser-known entrants, like Xpeng—which was expected to get $1 billion in its IPO. Normally, a $1 billion offering brings headlines; in America, it received cursory coverage.
Michael Dunne, the acknowledged expert in the China market and publisher of the ZoZo Go newsletter, said numerous Chinese EV startups will be lining up at the New York Stock Exchange to get funding. However, it will be “three to five years before we see Chinese EV brands on U.S. roads” because of our countries’ trade spats and the Chinese automakers’ desire to concentrate on their home market first.
Still, there are no guarantees of Lucid’s success. We’re already seeing the shakeout of those who run out of patience, cash, or both, as seen with vacuum-cleaner magnate James Dyson giving up after spending $650 million to develop a sexy-looking SUV prototype and not much more. Anyone hear any good news from Faraday Future lately? And with COVID quashing retail sales, more startups likely will fail. But Lucid recently gave a majority holding in the company to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund in exchange for more than $1 billion in funding, so Rawlinson has some major backing.
“Please don’t call us a ‘Tesla killer.’ I want to coexist and thrive with them,” Rawlinson says. “I want to compete with Mercedes, Audi, and BMW.”