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Lucid Motors has a secret weapon against Tesla: one of its former engineers

Lucid is the latest contender in electric luxury

I went from a banal conference room at the Los Angeles Auto Show to looking at the big desert sky up above me through the glass on the Lucid Motors prototype.

It’s not the first time an electric car company has used a pair of VR goggles to draw me in to ooh and ahh over their concepts. But after a day of wandering among gasoline-powered crossover vehicles in a dry convention center at the auto show, the seductive simulation was working. I reclined back in my chair, stretched out my legs on the business-class-inspired seats, and enjoyed the sights.

Lucid Motors is among the latest wave of electric car startups to spring out of California with a sleek, dynamic, attractive sports car model. Under direction of the former Tesla Model S lead engineer Peter Rawlinson, the Lucid Motors CTO, there’s a feeling that Lucid has the internal knowledge to tease Tesla’s grip as maker of the ultimate electric luxury sedan — at least when I put on those rose-colored VR glasses.

At the auto show, I met with the Lucid leadership responsible for launching a new car company, including Rawlinson and chief designer Derek Jenkins, who is the former head of design at Mazda, and credited with the redesigned Mazda MX-5.

Rawlinson’s role at the company is to rethink the whole architecture of the automobile, an engineer’s dream job. “I believe that the electric powertrain can unlock doors to an array of designs that hasn’t been achieved before,” he said. The company’s approach is to make a midsized sedan that feels like a massive, roomy flagship vehicle. “We have a car that’s a little bit bigger than the Mercedes-Benz E class, but it’s actually less long, narrower, and lower than a Tesla Model S and it’s got the interior space of a long wheelbase Mercedes-Benz S Class,” Rawlinson said.

Lucid joins Karma, NextEV, and Faraday Future in the quest to steal some of Tesla’s shine. As a result, the electric horsepower wars are heating up, and Lucid is a contender with its claim that the car will make 1,000 horsepower and race from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than three seconds. This week NextEV has claimed that its car will make 1,390 horsepower. It’s all part of a race to build cars that run faster and longer on new and improved batteries.

Lucid, like many automakers, is looking toward the FIA Formula E racing series to promote this goal. It will be the sole supplier of battery packs to the series in partnership with McLaren Applied Technologies and Sony to develop a battery system for seasons 5 and 6, scheduled to debut in two years. Rawlinson said that Lucid’s battery will last twice as long as the current battery, and run for the entirety of the Formula E Race.

Lucid, a name that could be a phonetic play on Tesla’s Ludicrous mode, has it roots in batteries. It was founded as a battery company Atieva in 2007, before the recent name change in October. (The revived California-based electric car company Karma also spawned from a battery company.)

Lucid Motors

“I joined the company to secure series C funding with the clarity of vision of doing something with the electric powertrain that hadn’t been done before,” Rawlinson told me. He says there’s no single lead investor, but four sources he can disclose that include Venture Rockefeller, the Japanese company Mitsui & Co, Chinese-owned Beijing Auto and Chinese company LeEco (also the primary backer of Faraday Future.) “We are first and foremost a California brand,” he said. “This is a cutting-edge Silicon Valley company.”

The car is slated to go into production in late 2018. In the first year Lucid plans to limit production from 8,000 to 10,000 units to maintain quality and then aspires to grow to an ambitious 50,000 to 60,000 units per year. Rawlinson says they plan to add additional platform derivatives on top of that number. That’s a lot of cars for a company that has yet to sell its first car.

Lucid Motors

Lucid plans to start with personal ownership model through direct sales model and to explore partnership with fleets. “The vehicles that we’re conceiving for Lucid are perfectly suited for the ride sharing space with large interior spaces and clean technologies,” Rawlinson said. “Maybe you don’t own it but you use it for a service. That shared usage can make a car more affordable, because someone could reach to an $80,000 car, if they are prepared to let the car being used and to have revenue from that investment.”

For now, Lucid has 330 people working in house. Soon the company will announce the location of a plant in the Western US. Lucid executives won’t say where, except that it’s nowhere near Las Vegas, where Tesla and Faraday Future are building factories.

After my VR tour and interview with Rawlinson, the designer Jenkins escorted me into a parking garage to see the prototype up close. “This is the closest I’ve ever been to a blank sheet,” Jenkins said, describing the design process. “As a car designer you’re given a fixed direction. In this case, this has been conceived as something new, it’s a true form and function synergistic exercise. The grille of the car will look different than anything else.”

The prototype was wrapped in a monochromatic geometrical patterns. Jenkins pointed out unfinished surfaces on the door panels, but the form gave me a general sense of proportion. The car will use polished aluminum and wraparound glass, he said. “We’ve combined attributes from different classes,” Jenkins said. “It wouldn’t be possible with an internal combustion engine.” He pointed out the thousands of lenses in the lights, developed with nanotechnology.

But what happens on the interior is key to making the car a hit. This is where Lucid has gotten most creative with the outfit of an electric powertrain by moving the driver and passenger position forward and pushing the passenger seating farther back, in an effort to optimize the possibilities of the car’s form. Pointing to the trunk, he says, “You can put golf bags in sideways.” Lucid’s user interface team is incorporating natural voice, and has tapped the talents of the lead developer of Amazon Echo.

From its inception, Lucid will incorporate autonomous driving software into its prototype. “We’re very mindful of this new paradigm of shared mobility and autonomy and we’re designing for that right from the core,” Rawlinson said. Their self-driving system uses ultrasonic sensors, longshore range cameras and radar, and a full set of LIDARs. “We’ll have a clearly autonomous ready system pending legislative freedom and partnership with a software supplier. I can see us becoming ready as soon as it’s possible, but it’s probably not going to happen until 2019, early ‘20,” Rawlinson said. There are no plans to take the steering wheel outside of the car — Lucid wants to stay driver-friendly.

From what I saw of the prototype in person and through the VR goggles, Lucid isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel. But what Lucid is doing is pushing boundaries on the concept of proportion and dimension, like a well-designed New York apartment, making the most of the space people inhabit.