Grilling the guys behind the Lucid Air, the luxe EV that makes Teslas look tame

It’s got up to 1,000 horsepower, a 217-mph top speed, and a range of up to 400 miles. It’s the Lucid Air, an electric luxury sedan from startup Lucid Motors that is scheduled to start production in 2019 at a new factory in Arizona. But where exactly did this new electric car come from, not to mention its maker, Lucid Motors?

To get the full story on the Air, Digital Trends talked to two Lucid Motors executives at the 2017 New York Auto Show. CTO Peter Rawlinson previous worked for Tesla, including as chief engineer of the Model S. Vice president of design Derek Jenkins came to Lucid from Mazda North America, where he served as director of design. His previous credits include the current-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata.

Digital Trends: Lucid Motors started out as Atieva, which supplied electric powertrain components to other companies. How did you transition to making your own cars?

Lucid Air will be Level 4/Level 5 autonomous ready from the get go, when it goes into production in 2019.

Peter Rawlinson: Atieva started out as a battery-technology company, and got lots of batteries into real-world use. We accrued 20 million miles of data of our batteries in the field, in commercial vehicles. Then we started transitioning from that into complete electric powertrains.

Then I joined the company a few years ago to lead the charge into making it a vehicle company. We secured Series C funding, and then brought a world-class team together to do the Lucid Air. So three steps: batteries, powertrain, car. That started back in 2007. So although we’re branded as a startup, it’s been a long process.

DT: What was the thinking behind becoming a vehicle company instead of just a supplier?

PR: There was an ambition, there was a recognition that that was the future. I think it’s very clear that the world is going to move to electric [cars], and I think very clear that taking an integrated approach, that’s the way to get the maximum value. If you start designing these things, like a battery pack, individually, you don’t get the real potential.

Now, we never would have been able to do this if we didn’t have this world-class powertrain technology. We’ve been doing this for years, and that’s a key differentiator. It isn’t easy to get to this level.

DT: What distinguishes the Lucid Air from, say, a Tesla Model S, or the luxury electric cars several established automakers are planning?

PR: It’s a bit of a myth that traditional OEMs are getting into electric [cars]. As for the other electric-car contender, the Air is smaller and lower than a Tesla Model S, but with the interior space of an S-Class Mercedes. It’s more like an E-Class Mercedes on the outside, and an S-Class on the inside.

DT: And the Air will come prepped for autonomous driving?

PR: Lucid Air will be Level 4/Level 5 autonomous ready from the get go, when it goes into production in 2019, in terms of the hardware. We will have to wait for the software, and for legislation, to allow that switch-on through an over-the-air download of the software.

So when I say it’s hardware enabled: It’s got dual-redundancy in steering and braking. It’s got a full sensor suite of cameras, lidars, and radars, both long and short range, to allow for sensing in inclement weather conditions and strange lighting circumstances. We recently announced our partnership with Mobileye on their sensing technology.

DT: Will the software be ready to go when you launch the car?

PR: No. The car will be ready to go in terms of hardware. We anticipate being Level 3 ready at launch. For a Level 4/Level 5 [capability], legislative requirements would have to be satisfied, and we will partner with someone for the software, because we see that as a very significant task.

We’ll have a car with all hardware elements designed in, the lidars, the radars, and the camera systems. Also we’ll have massive onboard data processing for file compression, and also a terabyte of onboard data storage. So you have an integrated system ready for a software download over the air, which will enable full autonomy.

DT: Derek, we talked a little bit about interior space, and fitting it into a relatively compact platform with an electric powertrain. Can you talk a bit about exactly how that worked from a design perspective?

Inside the car, it’s really a feeling of this openness, this airiness, hence the name Lucid Air.

Derek Jenkins: First of all, because we’re repackaging the car, we’re not having to lay out such a large internal-combustion engine. We’re able to distribute the space throughout the vehicle. So proportionally the cabin of the car is much longer, much more drawn out. The hood of the car is much shorter, giving it that space.

Inside the car, it’s really a feeling of this openness, this airiness, hence the name Lucid Air. That really kind of accentuates what we believe is a form of new luxury. It’s not the kind of luxury that’s heavy and guarded. It’s more open, like a living space, and that’s a big part of the overall mission of the design.

DT: Are there any models planned after the Air?

PR: We are creating a new brand and a new company, and the Air is our first product. We are looking at other products placed upon this platform, but we’ve got loads of focus on this first product, because this is an enormous task. We have to get this right first.

DJ: What’s important to realize is that the philosophy of, the technology of, the drivetrain, how we package that, and this idea of redefining segmentation through space and size, that is applicable through a whole range of products. That’s exactly our approach.

DT: The Air itself launches in 2019. At full production, how many are you expecting to build per year?

PR: We anticipate about 50,000 units a year from our plant in Arizona. But the first year we’ll probably make about 8,000 to 10,000, and gradually ramp it up to 50,000 over about three years, with great emphasis upon quality control.

DT: Why start with a luxury car?

PR: Because the business model makes so much sense, when we consider the current price of batteries. Also, we want to deliver a technical tour de force as a first product, to establish the value of the brand. I think that those two arguments make as much sense today as they ever have.

lucid motors cto peter rawlinson and design boss derek jenkins lucidmotors air palm springs  03

You start with a relatively high-end product, and then you can cascade down and make products more reachable and affordable. But Lucid Air starts from $60,000.

DT: Do you see the brand going more mainstream further down the line, or will it always be a luxury or premium brand?

PR: I can see that happening in the future.

DJ: I think long term that would be the ideal goal, but you know, as Peter said, it’s so fundamental to establish yourself as really a true leader in all of the key areas for this technology.

DT: The Air will have up to 1,000 horsepower and a 217-mph top speed, but it will also be heavily reliant on autonomous-driving technology. Is this a car for drivers, or a car to ride in?

PR: It’s augmented by autonomous-driving technology; it’s not reliant upon it. I love driving. This a car for drivers, that’s why it’s more compact. This is what’s great about this car: traditionally you’ve got this clash, this paradox, between a driver’s car, and a luxury sedan to ride in.

“We are looking at other products for the platform, but we’ve got loads of focus on this first product, because this is an enormous task.”

Because it’s more compact, it’s more agile, it’s a magnificent driving machine. It’s got fully active suspension, active damping, and we can have great ride quality and great handling. But it’s got this incredible interior space, which makes it a great car to ride in as well. That’s why it’s so disruptive.

DJ: We’re in a critical time of transition, right? We look at, we imagine, where the next 10 years will go with autonomous driving, and how that will influence the automobile. But when we look at the near term, and we look at the luxury consumer, there’s a transition where you need to do many things very, very well to be successful, in addition to being autonomous.

That’s really where, being a great driver’s car, being a great car to be driven in, is really ideal, together with these technologies.

DT: Do you have any plans for charging infrastructure to support the car, or will you rely on third parties?

PR: The current plan is to be part of the integrated charging network, not create our own. But one of the features of this car is we have two-way charging built in, so we can charge from the grid to the car, and from the car to a mini grid.

DT: Do you see the Air being used for ride sharing? Would you promote that yourself, or work with someone else?

PR: We need to get the car out first. That opens up a whole raft of possibilities.

DT: But you do see ride sharing as being a big possibility for this car?

PR: Absolutely. I certainly see this being very well suited to ride sharing.

DT: What specifically are you still working on to get the Air ready for production?

PR: Some of the finessing of some of the surfaces, some of the feasibility, some of the door jambs, some of the door hinge systems. Scalloping away a bit of interior trim to help with ingress and egress, some of the things we’ve learnt.

Then on the technical side, leaning from our testing. We’ve had great winter testing; you may have seen some of our cars testing in the snow in Minnesota. We’re just about to announce the results of our high-speed testing. [Lucid subsequently announced the Air had achieved a top speed of 217 mph on a track in Ohio].