Payne: Inside Lucid, Tesla’s Silicon Valley EV arch-rival

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 11, 2022

Newark, California — Located just 11 miles up the San Francisco Bay from Tesla Inc.’s Fremont factory, Lucid Motors is the third electric vehicle maker in California’s Big Three.

With a market capitalization hovering near $100 billion — more than Detroit’s Big Three of General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV — the brand joins Tesla and Irvine-based Rivian Automotive Inc. as highly-valued, 21st-century automakers delivering a new breed of luxury performance.

With ex-Tesla chief engineer Peter Rawlinson at the helm, the Bay Area startup wants to be beat Tesla at its own game. With a stunning, 1,111-horsepower sedan as its flagship, Lucid is coming to a studio showroom near you.

Boasting the industry’s longest range and most-efficient electric motors, it aims to be an American icon. Significantly, Lucid does not offer Tesla’s secret sauce: A proprietary charging network. Instead, it boasts technology-partner Atieva, which produces the battery packs for the international Formula E electric racing series that is pushing the boundaries of battery performance.

$169k Lucid Air Dream Edition

Lucid is headquartered in an unassuming office park here, its sans-serif logo glowing atop a low, glass building. Inside, the lobby is dominated by the Lucid Air’s 900-volt, skateboard architecture — its batteries slung low between the four wheels. As the first, $169,000 Air Dream Edition models come down the line at the company’s Casa Grande, Arizona, assembly plant, the company dreams of 500,000-a-year production volumes by 2030 — including production of the Gravity SUV in 2023.

But first it needs to sell the Air, one of the most stunning cars on the market, whether gas-or-electric powered. After wowing the 2017 New York Auto Show, the Air prototype has been methodically prepared for production while Rawlinson & Co. raised capital, a production facility, and performance expectations.

Designed by ex-Mazda design chief Derek Jenkins, Air uses the skateboard chassis to full advantage. Without a gas engine up front, the sleek sedan sits on a wheelbase for a mid-size BMW 5-series — but with interior room similar to a full-size BMW 7-series, including a rear seat fit for 7-footers.

Lucid HQ, Newark, CA

The sci-fi nose features a thin chrome brow stretching the width of the fascia — an even thinner line of LED headlight underneath it. Clam shell hoods reveal big cargo spaces for rear and front trunks. The car wouldn’t be out of place in a Tron movie.

The cabin is dominated by twin console and instrument screens, the latter a 34-inch, curved piece of glass that remind of the Porsche Taycan EV. A panoramic glass roof spans the cabin.

The years after he helped bring the Model S to market, engineer Rawlinson hopes the Air will be the EV standard for the next decade.

Rawlinson took the helm of battery-maker Atieva in 2014 with the promise of building an EV brand. In addition to Jenkins, the Welsh-born engineer has attracted top industry talent to Lucid including ex-Tesla Model 3 and Audi manufacturing veteran Peter Hochholdinger and ex-Apple and Rivian software engineer Michael Bell.

Lucid showroom in Silicon Valley is owned by the company and features Mobile Unit service as well service bays - like Tesla.

In the back of Lucid’s HQ, doors open to a big development bay where workers fuss over Air models in various states of undress. Atieva’s Formula E manufacturing is also done under the building’s roof, a reminder of the importance of race track-to-production technology transfer which has been key to gasoline engine development over the last two centuries.

“There is a lot of talk of racing technology transfer in the industry, but this is the real deal,” said Justin Berkowitz, Lucid Public Relations Manager for Technology who came over from BMW. Rawlinson himself was Lotus chief engineer, a company with deep roots in racing, before his stint at Tesla.

Beginning in 2018, Ateiva has been the sole manufacturer of batteries for Formula E — its high-performance cells riding in Jaguar, Audi, Porsche, and other racers. Similar battery cell tech sits in the belly of the Air, achieving an industry first 500-miles plus of range (520 miles in the Dream Edition and Grand Touring models).

The batteries drive Rawlinson’s prized, electric drive unit. With a power density of 9.05/kilogram — three times that of the Tesla Model S — at 20,000 RPM, the small, 163-pound drive unit efficiently integrates the electric motor and differential into one housing. The result is not only more power — the Air Dream Edition’s horsepower rivals that of the $3.8 million Aston Martin Valkyrie hybrid supercar — but space efficiency that allows class-leading front trunk space.

The compact Lucid Air drive unit allows for more space up front.

Lucid is ambitious. After the Air Dream’s launch — Grand Touring and base Pure models will follow — Lucid’s Gravity SUV will go toe-to-toe with the gull-winged Tesla Model X. Lucid plans to expand into Canada, Europe in 2022, and China in 2023.

The Air’s beauty, performance, and startup appeal earned it a nomination for North American Car of the Year versus affordable, more established models like the Honda Civic and VW Golf GTI.

“It’s an effortless vehicle. Interior is a knockout. The performance is extraordinary,” said NACTOY juror Lindsay Brooke, publications editor for the Society of Automotive Engineers. “And for being such a big machine it really handles better than I thought it would. If they can build up this brand it will be a powerhouse in electric vehicles.”

The clam shell trunk of the Lucid Air.

It has gained the reputation as the “next Tesla” here in Silicon Valley, but some analysts are wary.

“Tesla also enjoyed a first-mover’s advantage in the EV market. Today, the EV market is much more saturated,” writes Motley Fool consumer goods analyst Leo Sun. “In addition to competing against Tesla, Lucid will need to fend off traditional automakers like Ford, BMW, and Volkswagen. That saturation will make it tough for latecomers like Lucid and Rivian to replicate Tesla’s growth.”

Intriguingly the Air Dream Edition begins customer deliveries at about the same time as Tesla’s own 1,000-horsepower beast, the Model S Plaid, which hits the market at $134,490. The Lucid boasts 124 miles range more than the Tesla while still providing shocking power. The Plaid hits 60 mph in 2 seconds, the Air in 2.5.

Game on.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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