Is This the Electric Car That's Going to Trump Tesla?
Here, in the motor court of a $55 million Newport Beach estate, climbing into the rear of the Lucid Air for test ride, we’re already skeptical.
Beneath the Jackson Pollock-esque camouflage wrap, the California-based marque's prototype has the futuristic lozenge shape we’ve seen in photos, but it almost lacks an interior entirely. There are just bare metal panels, no soundproofing, and a vinyl bench seat. None of the brand’s promised luxury selling point is present, no rear-seat screens, no deeply reclining chrome, leather, wood, and felted wool cocoons meant to give the Air the feel of a first-class jet cabin.
But we’re willing to give much of that a pass when the test driver, a World Rally Championship racer, pounds the throttle.
Yes, this rolling test-bed is stripped of much of the weight that the finished sedan will carry (this temporary body is made of easy-to-produce and -replace carbon fiber panels, not aluminum and steel), but it’s also dialed down to half the 1,000 horsepower the production vehicle will sport from the 130 kWh battery pack integrated into the floor. When the driver hits the go pedal (don’t say “gas”), we are literally pinned to our seats. Moreover, with an electric motor and active air dampers at each wheel, and all that weight down in the battery lowering the center of gravity, the car feels remarkably planted as we slalom down a steep hill that leads to the ocean. Once we turn around and take off back up the hill, we leave behind the scent of smoking rubber.
The Lucid Air may not be ready for production just yet, and given the vagaries of the electric vehicle (EV) startup business, it may never make it there. (It costs upwards of $1 billion for an established company such as General Motors to develop a new car. Imagine what it takes if you don’t yet have a factory, or workers, or a supply chain, or an existing relation with regulatory agencies, or established technology.) But it has our attention.
If everything goes according to plan and the Air hits the road in 2019 as projected, Lucid claims that the six-figure sedan (previous reports have pegged it up to $160,000) will rocket like a supercar from zero to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds, achieve 400 miles of range on a single charge, and sport advanced driving assistance capabilities such as radar, lidar, and cameras that will make it ready for pure autonomous operation—wherein the driver is all but irrelevant. It’s the dream that such companies as Tesla and other startups, such as Faraday Future (whose billionaire investor Jia Yueting has also invested in Lucid), are all working toward.
We have extreme doubts about the technological, indemnification, infrastructural, regulatory, and consumer preparedness for Level 4 or Level 5 autonomy 1 (pdf) in the next two (or five, or more) years. When challenged on this, Lucid’s chief technology officer, Peter Rawlinson, formerly of Tesla, backs away from his claim that full autonomy is imminent in “the near future” and adjusts to say that the brand is simply developing and implementing features that will allow it to “future-proof the car to be ready for that eventuality.”
Striking, Unique Profile
There was another, far more polished Air prototype at the estate, as well, a rolling hero version finished in a liquid rhodium color. What’s not in doubt is our attraction to the Lucid Air’s design.
The front end is low, with a narrow sneer of micro-lensed LED headlights. The windshield touches down nearly above the centerline of the front axle, pulling the cab way forward and reducing the size of the prow. The sculpted fuselage body, taffied out between the wheels, provides an interior the size of a Mercedes Benz S-Class on a platform the size of a smaller Mercedes Benz E-Class. This gives the rear passenger compartment capacious accommodations; its novel bubble-topped rear, like a glass pergola grafted onto a state limousine, wouldn’t look out of place in one of Syd Mead’s Space Age illustrations. All that’s missing is the metallic jumpsuits.
This is Lucid’s gauntlet throw to the only established player in today’s luxury EV market: Tesla. While the interior of the six-figure Model S and Model X are minimal and refined, they lack any true sense of indulgence. This may suit Tesla’s Early Adopter and Fast Follower psychographic segments, who may prefer to imagine that their $135,000 investment is going purely into advancing technology toward our automotive destiny. But it leaves room for a deeper luxury play, especially for the passengers, whether autonomous driving ever arrives. The folks in the back seat can still indulge in their screens and tray tables and massaging features, using the car as a mobile office, a site for consuming streaming entertainment, a place for unwinding and napping.
This is why the Air’s seats coddle the way they do, adjusting in every imaginable dimension, and some oddly unimaginable ones. Climbing into the hero model, we rode the seat like a roller coaster through its full range of motion, and while it was eminently comfortable, it did feel strange to be levitated and splayed out deep into the rear glass canopy where all we could see was sky. Then again, were we to relinquish the steering wheel and link our cars together in a cloud-enabled chain, one can imagine a ride becoming akin to terrestrial flight—looking up might be better for one’s mental state with a computer driving, so as not to focus on what might go wrong up ahead.
The Air will need every differentiation and unique selling proposition it can muster in 2019, not only because it will be competing with the next generation vehicles from category leader Tesla, but because established sporting and luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Jaguar, and Aston Martin will all be bringing out their own similarly priced, pure electric luxury sedans and SUVs at or around the same time. And those companies all have plenty of other revenue streams to fall back on should EVs not immediately find an audience, an indulgence Lucid lacks.
Rawlinson remains bullish and dismisses the standard narrative that a luxury EV company (and Tesla is currently the only one) bleeds capital on every vehicle it sells in a subsidized quest for market share—and as a former Tesla internal, he seems to have perspective.
“It’s a myth that EVs lose money,” he says. “It’s a very smart play, though. If I dominate that market, wouldn’t it benefit me greatly to have my competitors—long-lived brands with decades of experience building cars—believe that this is a money-losing prospect?”