Sitting in the passenger seat of Faraday Future’s mythical FF91, I found myself clinging to the red strap that doubled as the door handle to keep from flying out the window. The car kicked up dust as it rail-gunned down the length of the giant tent where FF set up shop during CES in Las Vegas. As the electrically powered propulsion pushed me back into the bucket seat, I couldn’t help but let out an involuntary squeal as my brain tried and failed to process the speed. Holy shit, was that fast.
Earlier in the week, FF finally pulled the rabbit out of the hat. The FF91 took the stage Tuesday night to rapturous applause from hundreds of people gathered to witness the ambitious-but-troubled startup’s big CES reveal. The FF91 has plenty of sleek design cues like a retractable LIDAR sensor in the hood and whiz-bang technology like self-parking via smartphone. But FF still needs to prove that it is a real company that could produce a real car for people to own. The CES presentation bought Faraday Future a bit more time to do that.
The weeks leading up to CES were fraught with bad news for the California-based electric car startup. Construction on its $1 billion factory in North Las Vegas had stalled. Suppliers were suing for unpaid bills. And several investigations, including one by The Verge, exposed new details about the company’s financial difficulties. Several top executives resigned. The bad press threatened to overshadow FF’s much-hyped event.
But then the FF91 emerged on the CES stage, and it looked like Faraday Future’s critics had gotten it wrong. Executives attempted to show the vehicle’s self-parking feature (one attempt was successful, one not) and then the company showed the FF91 in a mock-drag race among a trio of ultra-fast rivals. The car had a real engine! And it was fast! At the end of the event, chief engineer Nick Sampson sounded a defiant note: “I can say now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, despite all the naysayers and skeptics, we will carry on and make the impossible possible.”
But in a Q&A with reporters following the theatrical press conference, Sampson was less convincing, though he attempted to strike a positive note. “Everything we’ve achieved,” he said, “we’ve achieved at a faster pace and in a different way than the conventional industry.”
The stalled construction on the $1 billion factory in North Las Vegas? “We’ll start very early in the new year,” Sampson said. (During the event, FF played a video that showed close-ups of dirt moving along a conveyor belt, but no foundation or additional construction.)
The loss of some of the company’s most high-profile executives? “A company like FF... is a difficult company to work with, in terms of the environment, the culture,” he said. “It doesn’t suit every individual.” Lead designer Richard Kim, who also was present, chimed in: “It’s not a nine-to-fiver.”
The lawsuits from suppliers for unpaid bills? “We will be [paying our suppliers],” Sampson said. Will be paying or are paying? “A combination. Both.” Sampson also said the FF91 will be sold in the US market, dismissing claims that the company will soon be purchased by its main Chinese investor, LeEco founder Jia Yueting. “We’re a US-based company,” he said.
This claim contradicts reports that Jia has practically taken the reins of FF in an attempt to steer it through its launch and financial difficulties. Analysts and former employees who were watching FF’s event in the hopes of seeing signs that the company could turn its fortunes expressed disappointment. “The public will love the futuristic design and likely accept their vision for the future... but I believe there will be some head scratching,” one former executive told me. “Primarily around the sheer size of the vehicle, all of the screens and the wine cellar. And if price gets mentioned, the public will freak.” (The company says the car comes with an optional refrigerator in the back.)
Price wasn’t mentioned, but rumors place it somewhere between $100,000-$120,000, the same price range as a loaded Model S. This strategy is clearly to capture luxury customers, and use that as a springboard to build a more mass-market vehicle. FF claims to have collected 64,124 reservations in the 36 hours since the FF91 was unveiled. Some of those reservations include a $5,000 refundable deposit, but FF won’t say how much it raked in.
“I don't think they addressed any of the concerns about viability,” said Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst at Navigant. “They refused to discuss finances or even pricing of the car and frankly the video of moving dirt may have been counter productive because it showed they really haven't done anything on the factory. Unless they can raise some serious cash soon, they are in trouble.”
Let’s be clear: outside of in-the-know car enthusiasts most people haven’t heard of Faraday Future. And those who have heard of Faraday Future have probably also heard about the multitude of problems. There is long history of beautiful cars made by failed car startups. In fact, more car companies fail than succeed.
FF still has hundreds of engineers, including a half-dozen top executives with long histories in the automotive and racing worlds. But the odds against it are huge, and it will take more than a pretty car on a stage to convince people its a company worth investing in.
After my test ride, I spoke to Sampson about his company’s ongoing challenges. “In some ways, there’s nothing you can do to make the skeptics believe,” he said. “The skeptics moaned last year that we brought out the Batmobile as so many called it. They said you’re not serious, it’s vaporware, it’s bullshit. We said trust us, believe us, we know what we’re doing. And we were back this year with a car.”
This year, FF demonstrated three “virtues,” Sampson said: beauty, brains, and brawn. The car is certainly not hard on the eyes. Sure, it parks itself, so it has smarts. And it slays on the track. But Sampson forgot the fourth virtue: humility. FF needs to stop making larger-than-life promises, and start delivering.
This post was originally published on January 6th and has been updated to include video.