INTERVIEW: Lucid Air drives the electric vehicle transformation to the next level

Illustration by Luis Grañena
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Updated 13 September 2020

INTERVIEW: Lucid Air drives the electric vehicle transformation to the next level

  • Peter Rawlinson, CEO of the Saudi-backed motor manufacturer, believes the “writing is on the wall” for petrol engines as he launches “the best car in the world”
  • It is aiming unashamedly at the luxury saloon segment, dominated by German manufacturers such as BMW and Mercedes

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” said Peter Rawlinson, CEO of Lucid Motors. Given that he was talking about groundbreaking electric vehicle (EV) technology after launching what he called “the best car in the world,” that was quite a claim.

Rawlinson, who learned the car design business at UK sports car legend Lotus before going on to work on the design of the Tesla S, believes that the Lucid Air — launched last week to much online fanfare — is not just a game changer for the motor business, but for the world.

“We’ve got the best car in the world, but I’m more excited to know that we have technology that can cascade down to more affordable models for the man in the street. That’s what is going to change the world, not just selling more luxury cars,” he told Arab News.

What makes it all the more fascinating is that this planet-changing technology has been enabled by Saudi Arabia, known for the past century as the global hub of the conventional hydrocarbon industry, but which stands to lose out if, or when, gas-guzzling giants give way to clean electric vehicles.

The Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) owns a majority stake in Lucid, having invested more than $1 billion into the project in 2018. “They put their faith in us, that’s why we’re here today thriving,” Rawlinson said.

He believes the launch of the Air could be the moment the EV market really takes off. The car, which could be available in the Middle East as early as next year following its planned debut in the US next spring, boasts better performance, longer range and more comfortable design than virtually any other currently in the EV market.

It is aiming unashamedly at the luxury saloon segment, dominated by German manufacturers such as BMW and Mercedes, and is priced around $90,000 to $170,000 per car, depending on model and specification. Reductions for that price are planned after the first year of production.

It will also, inevitably, come up against Tesla, the undoubted leader in the EV production space, and the most valuable car company in the world, but Rawlinson is not daunted by that prospect.

“The Tesla Model S is beautifully designed and engineered, and it has undoubtedly been disruptive, but it is not aimed at the luxury market. The Model S is a good first effort, but we felt we could take it to another level,” he said.


BIO

BORN: South Wales, UK.

EDUCATION: Bachelor of Science (engineering) Imperial College, London.

CAREER

  • Principal engineer, Jaguar Cars.
  • Chief engineer, Lotus Cars.
  • Head of vehicle engineering, Corus Automotive.
  • Chief engineer, Model S, Tesla.
  • CEO, Lucid Motors.

“There’s so much more to come. There might be some disbelief out there; people might think I’m crazy, but I am the guy who designed the Model S,” he added.

Tesla is a rival, but he does not see it as a case of “either/or” in the EV market. There is plenty of room for the two manufacturers, especially with Lucid’s chosen segment being the luxury end.

“We are overtly targeting the grand European marques that are mostly gasoline powered. That is a $100 billion market, and if we just scratch the surface of it and don’t steal a single customer from Tesla, we can thrive,” he said.

He does not think the existing gasoline-dominated industry is doing very well with its efforts in the EV space, and that manufacturers like Porsche and Audi have not realized the range and performance efficiencies he has achieved with the Air.

The key for the Lucid Air, he said, was that he was able to design an EV car from scratch, whereas all other designs have been developed with existing petrol-driven conventions in mind. Lucid has miniaturized EVs to an extent not seen before in the industry, from battery size through to the power train and in-car technology.

“Any fool can just stuff a bigger battery in and take up a load of space. It’s like solving a 3D puzzle, and miniaturization changes the rules of the puzzle. We can make the engine so tiny, and the electronics so tiny, that there is a lot more room for the passengers,” Rawlinson said.

He compares the Air to the “Tardis” time-machine familiar to fans of the British TV series “Doctor Who” — small on the outside but amazingly spacious on the inside.

Miniaturization opens another horizon too. A more efficient battery with greater range can give much higher performance levels. Lucid’s Atieva battery powers the Formula E vehicles that have been showcased at Saudi Arabian motorsports events. But it can also be the key to mass-market take-up of EV cars.

“The advantages are compactness, efficiency and the fact they are mass-producible. If we can reduce the inherent cost of transport, that’s where it gets really exciting. Who will make the $30,000 car? It might not be us, but we can license our technology to the likes of Honda or Toyota,” Rawlinson said.

If it all goes to plan, it could be the next step along the road to the “energy transformation” much talked about by environmentalists and economists, where fossil fuels are gradually but inevitably replaced by EV as the world’s main form of transportation.

The role of Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, within this transformation might appear counter-intuitive. The PIF injected the resources into Lucid to bring the Air project to fruition, and could be asked for more funds to get to the next big initiative — an SUV planned for 2023 — into production. “On the surface it’s a paradox, but when you delve a little closer it’s clear. The Kingdom has Vision 2030, and Saudi Arabia and the PIF are an intelligent bunch. They know the oil is going to run out one day, but the sunshine is going to be there a lot longer than that. I think they recognize that the writing is on the wall for gasoline engines,” Rawlinson said. “They’re looking well into the future to secure it for generations to come. I think the whole world benefits, because we all breath the same air. Climate change is real,” he added.

Rawlinson believes that his energy storage systems could have potentially game-changing consequences for the Kingdom’s energy industry, especially in solar sources. 

“That would be awesome for Saudi Arabia,” he said. “They have enough sunshine and they should really be harvesting it,” he said, noting that efficient battery power has applications across many sectors of industry such as agriculture, mining, heavy equipment power and drones.

The Kingdom wants industrial, hi-tech development as part of the Vision 2030 strategy, both to increase local employment and to enhance its own technology, and Rawlinson is already committed to helping out by basing some of its production capacity in Saudi Arabia.

“We’d love to do that, to help Saudi Arabia with the genesis of a motor industry there in the Kingdom. To birth its motor industry in pure electric might seem a paradox, but that’s how future-looking they are,” he said. 

He is also beginning to think about the aviation business, regarded by many energy experts as the ultimate prize for electrification, but which presents big problems on battery efficiency and range factors. Nobody has yet come up with a truly viable alternative to jet fuel for long-haul air travel.

“I’d love to get into electric aircraft. I hardly dare to say it, because it sounds like I’m completely nuts, but I think in the next 10 years you’re going to have an explosion in development of relatively short-range electric aircraft. We’ve got all the battery technology and integrated power-train solutions for electric aircraft,” he said.

That is all in the not-so-distant future, and for the moment Rawlinson is focusing on completing the Arizona production facility and getting Air cars on sale, first in the US next spring, then in Europe and the Middle East later in the year, or possibly early in 2022. Entry into the Chinese market — “the big one” — will come last.

“Getting the first car into production is very significant. If we fail at that, it would not be good, so I’m aware of the enormity of the task and treat it with the appropriate degree of humility. But this is very special. We can redefine what is possible for electric vehicles and the technology is groundbreaking. No-one else is even close,” he said.


The Musk Method: Learn from partners then go it alone

Updated 18 September 2020

The Musk Method: Learn from partners then go it alone

  • Entrepreneur building a digital version of Ford Motor’s iron-ore-to-Model-A production system of the 1920s

Elon Musk is hailed as an innovator and disruptor who went from knowing next to nothing about building cars to running the world’s most valuable automaker in the space of 16 years.

But his record shows he is more of a fast learner who forged alliances with firms that had technology Tesla lacked, hired some of their most talented people, and then powered through the boundaries that limited more risk-averse partners.

Now, Musk and his team are preparing to outline new steps in Tesla’s drive to become a more self-sufficient company less reliant on suppliers at its “Battery Day” event on Sept. 22.

Musk has been dropping hints for months that significant advances in technology will be announced as Tesla strives to produce the low-cost, long-lasting batteries that could put its electric cars on a more equal footing with cheaper gasoline vehicles.

New battery cell designs, chemistries and manufacturing processes are just some of the developments that would allow Tesla to reduce its reliance on its long-time battery partner, Japan’s Panasonic, people familiar with the situation said.

“Elon doesn’t want any part of his business to be dependent on someone else,” said one former senior executive at Tesla who declined to be named. “And for better or worse — sometimes better, sometimes worse — he thinks he can do it better, faster and cheaper.”

Tesla has battery production partnerships with Panasonic, South Korea’s LG Chem and China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL) that are expected to continue.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Investors awaiting ‘Battery Day’ announcements on Sept. 22.
  • Musk has hinted at significant new battery developments.
  • Partners and acquisitions have helped give Tesla an edge.

But at the same time, Tesla is moving to control production of cells — the basic component of electric vehicle battery packs — at highly automated factories, including one being built near Berlin, Germany and another in Fremont, California where Tesla is hiring dozens of experts in battery cell engineering and manufacturing.

“There has been no change in our relationship with Tesla,” Panasonic said in a statement provided by a company spokeswoman.

“Our relationship, both past and present has been sound. Panasonic is not a supplier to Tesla; we are partners. There’s no doubt our partnership will continue to innovate and contribute to the betterment of society.” Tesla did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Since he took over the fledgling company in 2004, Musk’s goal has been to learn enough — from partnerships, acquisitions and talent recruitment — to bring key technologies under Tesla’s control, people familiar with Tesla’s
strategy said.

They said the aim was to build a heavily vertically integrated company, or a digital version of Ford Motor Co’s iron-ore-to-Model-A production system of the late 1920s. 

“Elon thought he could improve on everything the suppliers did — everything,” said former Tesla supply chain executive Tom Wessner, who is now head of industry consultancy Imprint Advisers. “He wanted to make everything.”

Batteries, a big chunk of the cost of an electric car, are central to the Musk method. While subordinates have argued for years against developing proprietary Tesla battery cells, Musk continues to drive toward that goal. “Tell him ‘No,’ and then he really wants to do it,” said a third former Tesla veteran.

The changes in battery design, chemistry and production processes Tesla expects to reveal next week are aimed at reworking the math that until now has made electric cars more expensive than carbon-emitting vehicles with combustion engines.

Tesla is planning to unveil low-cost batteries designed to last for a million miles. 

Tesla is also working to secure direct supplies of key battery materials, such as nickel, while developing cell chemistries that would no longer need expensive cobalt as well as highly automated manufacturing processes to speed up production.

Panasonic is partnered with Tesla at the $5 billion Nevada “Gigafactory,” while CATL and LG Chem supply cells to Tesla’s Shanghai factory, where battery modules and packs are assembled for its Model 3 sedan.

Panasonic recently said it is planning to expand its production lines in Nevada, which supply the cells that then go into the battery modules assembled next door by Tesla.

But the Nevada Gigafactory partnership almost didn’t happen, according to two former Tesla executives. Musk ordered a team to study battery manufacturing in 2011, according to one former executive, but eventually partnered with Panasonic in 2013.

Now, Tesla is testing a battery cell pilot manufacturing line in Fremont and is building its own vast automated cell manufacturing facility in Gruenheide in Germany.

The roller-coaster relationship with Panasonic mirrors other Tesla alliances.

During its development alliance with Germany’s Daimler, which was an early investor in Tesla, Musk became interested in sensors that would help to keep cars within traffic lanes.

Until then the Tesla Model S, which Mercedes-Benz engineers helped to refine, lacked cameras or sophisticated driver assistance sensors and software such as those used in the Mercedes S-Class.

“He learned about that and took it a step further. We asked our engineers to shoot for the moon. He went straight for Mars,” said a senior Daimler engineer said.

Meanwhile, an association with Japan’s Toyota, another early investor, taught him about quality management.

Eventually, executives from Daimler and Toyota joined Tesla in key roles, along with talent from Alphabet Inc’s Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, as well as rival carmakers Ford, BMW and Audi.

Some relationships did not end well, however.

Tesla hooked up with Israeli sensor maker Mobileye in 2014, in part to learn how to design a self-driving system that evolved into Tesla’s Autopilot.

“Mobileye was the driving force behind the original Autopilot,” said a former Mobileye executive, who declined to be named.

Mobileye, which is now owned by Intel, also recognized the risk of sharing technology with a fast-moving startup like Tesla, which was on the brink of collapse at the end of 2008 and now has a market value of $420 billion.

US tech firm Nvidia followed Mobileye as a supplier for Autopilot, but it too was ultimately sidelined.

In addition to partnerships, Musk went on an acquisition spree four years ago, buying a handful of little-known companies — Grohmann, Perbix, Riviera, Compass, Hibar Systems — to rapidly advance Tesla’s expertise in automation. Maxwell and SilLion further boosted Tesla’s ability in battery technology.