“Peter… I ‘m working for this dude named Elon Musk, and we’re in serious trouble.” This is how in 2009, when Morris needed assistance working on the prototype for a new electric vehicle, the phone call from Tesla model manager Dave Morris to engineer Peter Rawlinson started. He ultimately inspired Rawlinson to work at Tesla Inc., where he developed the Model S, which has been the most popular electric sedan to date. Now he has his own company named Lucid Motors, which hopes he can kill Tesla with their first mass produced electric car dubbed Air.
“I had a meeting with Elon on the Friday of my very first week in the Tesla [in 2009],” Rawlinson, now CEO and Chief Technical Officer of Lucid Motors Inc., told me. On Aug. 20, divided by six feet and masks, we’re seated in the newest Beverly Hills, California dealership. A former McLaren showroom, the 15,000-square-foot building boasts arched bow trusses painted in cherry over polished cement floor. As a dozen Lucid Motors workers in black polo shirts hover nearby, we sit on such a low, leather couch where potential customers can sit.
Rawlinson notes that the lively Tesla boss did ask him what he thought of the Model S in his very first few days at the company.
Elon asks, ‘Ok, how terrible is that? ‘I say,’ Look, you’re gonna need to postpone it,’ says Rawlinson. He asks, ‘Why!’ Are they that bad? “It truly is,” I say.
The first Tesla prototype was totally reconfigured by Rawlinson. In 2012, the production model launched. Rawlinson claims, 11 years after joining Tesla his name is now on more than 70 car-related patents.
Now his design of the Model S is now being utilized to improve something that could mean the car’s downfall if Rawlinson had his way: the Lucid Air, an electric vehicle with considerably more range and strength than the Model S.
The $150,000-ish Air, which was unveiled on September 9, and expected to come to the dealerships next spring, is specifically targeted at attracting consumers from the former employer of Rawlinson. (A “Dream Edition” Air after federal tax credits would cost $161,500; the “Grand Touring” Air would cost “after federal tax credits in the low $130,000s,” a spokesman explains; and Lucid Motors will also create a sub-$100,000 “Touring” variant in late 2021.)
“Rawlinson informed me that Lucid” was quite much founded on my proven record with the Model S. “It seemed like, yes, if I’d have done that, maybe we can do it again and push it to another level.”
The Charismatic Chief
These days, it seems you must have an eccentric, charming figurehead to attract attention if you want to create enthusiasm for your super luxury electric car. (At the end of the day, the cars themselves could be a tad dull with no grit-spewing or roaring.)
Tesla has Musk, a South African billionaire with 6 sons, a pixie punk girlfriend, a new brain chip, and dreams of dying on Mars. Thomas Ingenlath has Polestar, unmistakable at car shows in black trenchcoats and eccentric in his lean reticence. Fisker has Henrik Fisker, the charismatic mastermind behind Aston Martin DB9, V8 Vantage, a few yachts and rockets … and a terrible electric sports car.
Now comes Lucid’s Rawlinson, the son of a potter who studied architecture at Imperial College in London and now fills his creative side with a series of Gibson guitars before contemplating art school. Rawlinson, a longtime lead engineer at Lotus Cars and chief engineer at Jaguar Cars, wears comfortable slacks and somewhat disheveled shirts, without ties, even at car launches. He changes the subject if, as a matter of course, you question his age while reporting. However when you ask how many square feet the Lucid factory in Arizona covers, he’ll gladly chirp “two million?” Or was it 3 million? I have a senior moment — I’m sorry! And say that he has forgotten. (A spokesperson said that more than 800,000 square feet of space would be built by the new Phase One development, with “major” expansion expected for additional phases as Lucid integrates a line of SUVs and other potential models.)
For Rawlinson, car racing is a favorite topic: Lucid engineered, created, manufactures and supplies high-density battery cells for all Formula E racing teams under its previous brand-name Atieva. (The company was founded in 2007 as Atieva and renamed to Lucid Motors in 2016. It is primarily financed by a $1 billion contribution from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.)
When asked if Musk is indeed a friend, Rawlinson gets defensive. The two will always fly alone on Musk’s private jet. He suggests he’s saving the dish for “my book”.
“Let’s just say that Elon pays really good attention to what we do here,” he says with a huge chuckle.
The Innovative Space
Lucid’s Beverly Hills site is built like a mini mall, with elegant sofas oriented across coffee tables for meetings and women in black cocktail dresses holding trays loaded down with bottled water and espresso cups, opening to the public later in the month by invitation only.
A digital realty simulator is fitted with four car seats in another corner of the dealership and a front screen that switches backgrounds from the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco to the Sonoran Desert and Pacific Ocean, so that prospective buyers can properly imagine favorite colors for the cabin seats and trims. It sounds like a game from the mall, about 1997. (Looking at the available colors and picking one you want may be simpler.)
Two repair vans are parked in the rear, with mobile tire upgrades (de rigueur everywhere at finer dealerships) and a mobile coffee machine. The man who leads the service team insists that three vans are enough to please all customers in the area, an assertion that leaves cynical heat- and asphalt-baked Angelino commuters as they imagine the undoubtedly long delays and inconvenient logistics of the car community in California when service needs emerge.
All told, Lucid, mainly in New York, California, and Florida, will build nine such dealerships. Clients will be able to buy an Air in a showroom or order one online, tells designer Derek Jenkins. Rawlinson claims that for the first fiscal year, total volume would be from 7,000 to 8,000 units. When full production volumes are met, in the new factory-floor structure, the figure will be equivalent to 34,000, with 3 work shifts every day.
The Convenient Comparison
As much as they plan to set out on their own, if you speak to the management at Lucid, Tesla looms big. The hope is that the owner of Lucid may be someone who appreciates good things and is interested in different fuels, but cannot stomach the anomalies in manufacturing (poorly aligned body parts, shoddy construction quality) and Tesla interface glitches (touchscreen failures).
But Rawlinson chose to align his car with a particular, more analog style. He claims the air is for “guy with an S-Class Mercedes who states,” I wouldn’t have been so interested in electricity ten years ago. I respect what Tesla does for energy, but I will not get out of my Mercedes for a Tesla Model S.
As compared to a combustion equivalent, EVs do well if they look and sound close enough, since the power and reliability are invariably greater. At Polestar, the comparison is made with Volvo’s partner company; it’s no mistake for the upcoming Polestar 2 to evoke the Volvo S60. The electric Taycan at Porsche carries the same Turbo name and logo as the most expensive, most powerful 911. Although lacking the turbocharged combustion engine under its hood, Taycan generates more than 700 horsepower and hits a maximum speed of 162 mph, more than a top-of-the-line Porsche 911, if not just as quick at full speed.
At Lucid Motors, the comparison and rival is the S Class, the flagship sedan of Mercedes-Benz which still lacks an electric version. (“We are finally moving on that,” Philipp Skogstad, President of Mercedes USA, tells me, remembering that buyers of S Class are not “looking for” electric technologies in the big city car.)
The body design of The Air definitely lacks the majestic beauty of the S Class. (The guy who last designed the Air also designed the Mazda Miata.) And as opposed to the S Class, how it feels to drive one stays untested. In August, Edward Ludlow, Bloomberg’s tech and transport journalist, rode in the back of a Lucid Air, but test drives will not take place till the first or second quarter of 2021.
This is all we know about the specs of the car: The four-door Air produces 1,080 horsepower and, in ideal conditions, has a range of 517 miles. These estimates decimate those of the Model S of Tesla, which, in its best models, promises 503 horsepower and 348 miles driving range. (As per BloombergNEF, the total range for electric cars launched in 2019 was 183 miles and will hit 235 miles for 2020 models.)
Within, the Air has a sleek dashboard stripped of buttons and knobs, a center console that appears to hang hanging from its station point between front seats, and a glass panoramic roof that slinks from the top of the car’s hood to the stunted rear. Jenkins pointed out to me that in the front part, where the engine may typically reside (they name it the ‘frunk’), the 280-liter volume is the largest one ever provided in an electric vehicle. All told, Lucid Air has a luggage capacity of 739 liters, topping most traditional sedans, too.
Rawlinson knows it better than anybody that if his engineering project is here to stay, he’ll have to deliver something other than showrooms.
“Words are cheap,” Rawlinson told me in Beverly Hills that same day, sitting sandwiched between a battery cell rack and an Air platform recognized as the skateboard, exposed to its construction to show off. “It just sounds like nonsense. Unless we have everything into production, we are nothing.’