The Lucid Air could be Tesla’s most credible rival—as long as it gets funding

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  • The Air’s exterior styling disguises just how much space there is on the inside.Lucid Motors
  • Designer Derek Jenkins said that the biggest challenge with the exterior styling was integrating the car’s sensor suite, a mix of optical cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors, and lidar.Lucid Motors
  • The rear seats of the Air are quite special, even if you’re accustomed to relaxing and reclining in the back of an S-Class, A8, or M760i.Lucid Motors
  • Currently the UI involves three touchscreens and a central display in front of the driver. Eventually, Lucid hopes to be able to use a single, curved display in their place.Lucid Motors
  • Lucid had already broken 217mph in high-speed stability testing with the Air, but it felt the need to have another go and see just how fast the Air would go. The answer?

    235.44mph.Lucid Motors

Of the electric vehicle startups that are attempting to match Tesla’s formula for success, Lucid Motors remains the one to most quietly impress us. Compared to the elegant-but-conventional Tesla Model S and the Homer-like[2] Faraday Future FF91, Lucid’s Air is a refreshing take on what a car designer can do starting with a clean sheet of paper and no internal combustion engine powertrain to worry about. From the outside, the Lucid Air is about the same size as a Mercedes-Benz E-Class–a fitting target given the Air’s intended price starts at £60,000.

But clever packaging means the interior is as voluminous as an S-Class, something shown to good effect by the (optional) reclining rear seats. The car’s exterior styling is also refreshingly different. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, given its designer; before working at Lucid, Derek Jenkins was also responsible for the latest generation of Mazda Miata and Audi’s innovative A2.

Designing the Lucid Air was quite a different challenge from either of those cars; a new Miata has to recognizably be a Miata, and the A2 was bold but still constrained by Audi’s design language and platform requirements. “We’re not dealing with massive pieces of hardware; an electric vehicle powertrain is compact and easily dispersed,” Jenkins told us. “We’re devoting more of the Air to the occupant space. And that’s liberating in that there’s flexibility with the proportions of the car; we can bend some traditional rules.”

Jenkins also echoed a sentiment we heard recently from Luc Donckerwolke[3], the design chief at Hyundai’s Genesis. “The second thing is not being beholden to any existing brand notions. We get to take the new experience of an EV powertrain and a new brand identity,” Jenkins said.

In coming up with a brand identity for Lucid–formerly known as Atieva–Jenkins and his team decided to grasp the mobility nettle.

Love or loathe the word, in the past couple of years it has come to represent an expression of our automotive future: electrified, autonomous, connected. “We wanted to build around those ideas together with a Californian influence, to use it as a hearts-and-minds story,” Jenkins told us. “The mind is the technology that’s come out of California and is influencing the automobile. And the emotional is what people know from the state–our lifestyle, art, movies, and so on.”

It’s all about the user experience

Earlier this year, we had a look at one of Lucid’s prototypes[4] when the car was in town to show off to dignitaries on Capitol Hill (and us).

It was surprisingly polished for an alpha prototype; the attractive interior was well-finished, although obviously not quite at a production level. More impressive was how all the human-machine interface stuff worked; all four displays were actually functional without a looping demo screen in sight.

“We put a lot of energy into defining the layout of the UX,” Jenkins explained. “We wanted a lot of digital space, then set out to define a very simple, clear, easy-to-use experience. We’re not trying to layer in a ton of stuff; it’s about good legibility.

Make it logical and clear to understand. That doesn’t sound like rocket science, but you know how the industry has been–a mix of digital and analog displays, different logic flows for menus, and so on. For the Air we put things where I think they’re logically meant to be placed.

We still have a lot to do but wanted it to be a UX that a layman could get in and easily figure out.”

With the Air’s interior, Jenkins wanted to move the game on from the usual luxury flagship sedans like the BMW 7 Series[5] or the Audi A8[6], plush and cosseting though they may be. “The rear seat layout and configuration is a highlight of the vehicle,” Jenkins told me. “We put all the extra space there and put a lot of stake in the notion of redefining the luxury sedan when it’s an EV.” A more conventional rear seat will come standard, but the Air’s optional reclining chairs are a sight to behold–and sit in. Unlike the skateboard chassis you’ll find in a Tesla or Bolt, the battery pack doesn’t fill the entire space between the axles.

Instead of a single slab of cells, the shape has a pair of cut-outs that allow for “regular car”-style rear passenger footwells. As for the cells that would live there? They’ve been relocated to a double-height stack underneath the center console.

That means seats can truly recline all the way flat–at least in the prototype. This will be tweaked in the production car, we’re told.

It went HOW fast?

Lucid also appears very keen to build a driver’s car, even though it has the usual plans to introduce autonomous driving. The plan is that £60,000 gets you the standard Air: a single 289kW (400hp) rear motor-generator unit (MGU) and 240 miles of range. (We presume this will be around a 75kWh battery.) The batteries use chemistry developed in collaboration with Samsung and will be ready to work with the forthcoming network of higher-kW DC fast chargers.

But there will also be 100kWh (315-mile) and 130kWh (400-mile) options, as well as a 1,000hp (736kW) all-wheel drive option that combines a 289kW front MGU with a 447kW (600hp) rear MGU. Thus configured, the twin-motor Air will probably be one of the very fastest passenger cars on sale. In April at the Transportation Research Center proving ground in Ohio, another alpha prototype–fitted with a roll-cage and a small rear wing–reached 235.4mph (378km/h) in high-speed testing[7].

That’s almost as high a top speed as the McLaren F1, which broke the 240mph (386.4km/h) barrier back in 1998[8] at VW’s Ehra-Lessien test track[9] in Germany.

The Air prototype at TRC in Ohio.Enlarge[10] / The Air prototype at TRC in Ohio.Lucid Motors

If anything, the Air’s feat is all the more remarkable given the nature of the two test tracks. Ehra-Lessien’s high-speed track has a 5.4-mile (8.7km) straight; TRC’s two straights are less than half that at 2.5 miles (4km) long. Still, as a reality check we imagine that production Airs will have a much lower, software-limited top speed.

Lucid plans to have the Air in production by 2019, but that is contingent on the company bringing in sufficient investment. In July, Bloomberg Technology reported[11] that the company was courting the Ford Motor Company as a possible buyer for Lucid. The Blue Oval hasn’t ruled out the possibility, and the deal would give Ford an EV that was designed as such from the ground up; Ford’s current plans to electrify its offerings mostly involve converting existing products[12] into plug-in hybrid EVs.

Ford would also get access to Lucid (and Atieva)’s patent portfolio and EV know-how. Whether the deal would make sense for Lucid depends upon whether Ford has learned to be a better corporate parent than in the days when it owned Jaguar. And Aston Martin.

And Volvo.

Following the Ford news, Recode reported[13] that the Blue Oval wasn’t the only game in town: Lucid has also been talking to two other unnamed potential buyers, as well as pursuing that next round of funding which, if obtained, could allow it to forge ahead alone.

Listing image by Lucid Motors[14]

References

  1. ^ 18 posters participating (arstechnica.com)
  2. ^ Homer-like (www.youtube.com)
  3. ^ echoed a sentiment we heard recently from Luc Donckerwolke (arstechnica.com)
  4. ^ we had a look at one of Lucid’s prototypes (arstechnica.com)
  5. ^ BMW 7 Series (arstechnica.com)
  6. ^ Audi A8 (arstechnica.com)
  7. ^ reached 235.4mph (378km/h) in high-speed testing (www.youtube.com)
  8. ^ which broke the 240mph (386.4km/h) barrier back in 1998 (www.youtube.com)
  9. ^ Ehra-Lessien test track (www.motormorph.com)
  10. ^ Enlarge (cdn.arstechnica.net)
  11. ^ Bloomberg Technology reported (www.bloomberg.com)
  12. ^ electrify its offerings mostly involve converting existing products (arstechnica.com)
  13. ^ Recode reported (www.recode.net)
  14. ^ Lucid Motors (lucidmotors.com)

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