As electric cars go, the Tesla, particularly the groundbreaking Model S, is the pinnacle of style and performance. But in its rear-view mirror, here comes some serious competition—the Lucid Air.
If you’ve never heard of Lucid, that’s not a surprise. Even those of us in the car writing business have heard little. The company renamed itself recently, and they’ve been working quietly to produce not just a concept and a plan, but a real car. I saw it yesterday, and rode in a test version, and it’s the real deal.
Per Zak Edson, Lucid’s Director of Marketing, the car world is stagnant today, with a wide variety of choices that don’t provide a complete experience. The Lucid, however, is designed from the start to combine the feel of a luxury car, the performance of a sports car, and the urban maneuverability of a midsize sedan—all in one vehicle.
The Air, Lucid’s sole car at this point, is meant to relate to you, and be a seamless, personal experience. It’s a new kind of car, a segment-breaker, that is Mercedes E-Class sized on the outside for easy maneuverability, S-Class sized inside, and low and sleek like a sports car. It’s a no-compromise proposition, designed to give you back your energy, space, and time.
Inside, rather than presenting you with a large screen like in a Tesla, the Air gives you an update on the familiar instrument panel, but with more. It’s configurable, and it will know what to show you when you need it. So, for example, the left panel gives you controls for starting up, and once underway, displays your ongoing options.
The best way to communicate with the Air will be with your voice, just as you would with Siri. And as the car learns your routine, it can give you the best routing to your destination, remind you about stops you should make, and basically, act like the computers in Star Trek. The goal is to keep your phone in your pocket and your eyes on the road. The maximum capability with the minimum effort is the aim here—connected, natural, and adaptive.
The Air will debut ready for autonomous driving, but you’ll have a manual mode and a co-pilot intermediate step, where the handsome center portion of the instrument panel will show you what’s happening so you can intervene if it’s necessary. I rode in a test vehicle on a closed track and saw how the car knows where it’s going, turns on its turn signal by itself, and shows you what’s going on.
The view in the instrument panel screen changes depending on whether you’re driving or it’s doing the work. As a driver, you’ll see supplementary information, like a bird’s eye view, but while it’s driving, you’ll see what the car sees.
You can change the look and feel of the screens too. And, there is a flat iPad style panel that angles out down low for detailed views and entering information, as needed. Push a button to retract it. Sweet.
The clean, subtle style of the interior is exemplified in the way the 29 speakers in the high-end audio system are incorporated in, subtly hidden in the panels, without garish or clashing grilles. And there’s active noise cancelling, so in this nearly silent EV, you’ll hear everything the music can provide.
The car looks like a futuristic version of a full-size sedan. Derek Jenkins, the designer, used his talents before at Mazda, a small Japanese company known for its clean, expressive designs. In the Air, Jenkins has produced a vehicle with subtle surface transitions and some surprises.
The nose, for example, uses ten little headlamps on each side. Each tiny rectangle contains 4,820 individual lenses, like an insect’s eye, and each uses a gimbal to move with the car as it turns. They were going for a look different from the “two eyes” we’re accustomed to.
Below the lighting strips, behind a cover, are the radar, lidar, and cameras needed to permit autonomous driving. And the shape creates a vortex of air to cool the motor components.
Lucid believes that California provides the perfect blend of technical innovation and the spirit and emotion of life there. So, the designers, led by Sue Magnusson, have chosen California-based interior themes, including Lake Tahoe (warm oranges) and Santa Monica (bright, sunny whites), Mojave at night (dark shades) and Santa Cruz.
I got to experience the four themes not only by touching material samples and conversing with friendly Lucid folks, but by sitting in a solitary seat and wearing Virtual Reality goggles. These themes will be knockouts in real life—I got to see Santa Cruz in the debut sample car. The nearly all-glass roof above each theme is astounding, too.
Part of the vision for the Air is of air travel in an executive jet, blended with clean interior design, like a spacious, relaxing room. In opposition to today’s complex, busy lines, the exterior and interior of the car are elegant and refined. And the rear seat is configurable as a limo-like bench or as a pair of reclining chairs. The chairs lean way back, and from there you can look right up through the nearly all-glass roof. And with the ultra-spacious interior, the dash panel looks a half mile away.
How did they get S-Class accommodations inside an E-Class body? Super-efficient packaging.
In a fascinating discussion with David Mosely, Director, Powertrain, I learned about the extremely compact motors, one at each end of the car, that are small enough to fit under your arm (although I imagine they’re quite heavy). Positioning them carefully, along with a new compact type of differential and cooling system, allows for front and rear trunks.
Damian Harty, the Director of Chassis Engineering, gave me a tour through the suspension’s various aluminum pieces, each of which fits carefully around the structural components near it. It’s ingenious, and beautiful, too.
How about performance? The two small motors, plus a carefully configured battery that fits beneath the car, deliver a hearty 600 horsepower, good for a 2.5-second zero-to-60 time. The standard 100 kWh battery should provide 300 miles of range while the optional 130 kWh battery is expected to deliver 400 miles. The battery is not a monolith but a carefully shaped essential element of the car. It’s shaped to allow extra legroom for the very comfortable rear-seat passengers.
Safety? I viewed a rugged looking body structure that uses top grade aluminum and is designed to deform perfectly in a crash. The advanced safety systems should ensure that that happens very rarely, though.
Lucid plans to produce its cars in a new, state-of-the-art factory in Casa Grande, Arizona, set to break ground in the middle of 2017. It’ll be a sprawling facility someday, but the plan is to roll it out in three phases. Then, as more capacity is needed, they’ll just expand to fill the space. That saves a lot of startup cost while leaving room to grow along with future volume. By 2022, it should employ 2,000 workers.
Peter Rawlinson, Lucid’s chief technical officer, designed the Tesla Model S and has worked with Lotus and Jaguar. Rawlinson told me the goal with the Air is to create one exquisite and high-priced model, at around $100,000. However, as costs go down and volume goes up, Lucid will be able to offer versions at closer to $65,000. That’s what Henry Ford with the Model T prices, although the two cars couldn’t be more dissimilar.
The employees I spoke with at Lucid all told me about the close collaboration they enjoyed with each other while developing the Air. Designers and engineers were collocated, for example, so styling and technical design could communicate throughout the process. The Lucid Air itself then, with it’s perfectly coordinated components, reflects the team of 300 people who created it.