California-based Lucid Motors officially unveiled its first high-end electric vehicle this week, a sleek, sunlit sedan called the Lucid Air that executives expect will roll off the assembly line starting late 2018.
But as advancements in automotive innovation – autonomous driving, electric vehicle batteries and ride-sharing, among others – continue to progress at a rapid clip, it’s unclear exactly how different the car market will look when the Lucid Air finally hits the road.
“We’re very forward looking in that respect,” said Peter Rawlinson, Lucid’s chief technology officer. “We believe we’ve got the most likely bases all covered.”
Indeed, the “alpha prototype” car that Lucid Motors put on display this week promises to be fully electric and allow for completely autonomous driving. The company claims the car will feature a 100 kilowatt hour battery – and eventually a 130 kilowatt hour battery – that can travel up to 400 miles on a single charge. The top-tier Tesla Model S can get up to 330 miles, according to the company.
While executives said the Lucid Air is mostly developed and just needs more “finesse,” whether the car will ultimately deliver all of the promises executives touted Wednesday remains to be seen.
“We’ve been creating a production car from the start, not a concept car,” said Derek Jenkins, the vice president for design. “Inevitably through the feasibility process some features will morph or change slightly. Fundamentally this is representative of the car we want to build.”
And will that car entice customers? Edmunds senior analyst Jessica Caldwell isn’t convinced. As automakers continue to make investments in fuel efficiency and offer more electric vehicle options, there is a push across the industry to make batteries smaller, more efficient and longer lasting. Powerful batteries are becoming “the cost of entry” rather than distinguishing characteristics, she said.
“It seems a little passe at this point. To really move the needle, I think you’re going to (have to) talk about how your electrified vehicle will fit into a future concept of mobility, whether it’s part-time ownership or part of a ride-sharing fleet,” Caldwell said.
Tesla Motors, the current leader in the luxury electric market, is Lucid’s most natural competitor. Tesla announced earlier this year that plans are in the works for its own ride-sharing network. The company also continues to push forward with autopilot technology and is working toward full self-driving capabilities in all of its vehicles.
Tesla already has thousands of cars on the road and orders for many more, a distinct advantage that will leave Lucid playing catch-up.
Even if Lucid’s technology is ultimately comparable or superior to Tesla’s, the latter company has another key differentiator: Elon Musk, Tesla’s cult-leader-like CEO, has given the company a mighty public persona relative to its small size. He is also a special adviser to President-elect Donald Trump.
“A lot of people want to emulate Tesla, but Tesla is more than a car company,” Caldwell said. “They have someone at the helm who is trying to put people on Mars, who is doing a lot of interesting thought-provoking things, which kind of gets people to buy in wanting to be part of that.”
That’s not to say Lucid doesn’t have a fighting chance. On the contrary, its team includes a roster of executives with auto industry bona fides. Rawlinson was formerly the head of engineering for Tesla. Jenkins used to lead design for Mazda’s North American operations. Brian Barron, the director of global manufacturing, spent 18 years at BMW.
The company has also raised more than $130 million in venture capital from a slate of American, Chinese and Japanese investors, according to investment database Crunchbase. A Lucid spokesman declined to confirm that amount.
Lucid executives say comparisons to Tesla sell their car’s potential short. They view the Air as a competitor to traditional luxury brands, such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes, and expect they can take customers away from those carmakers. Of course, those brands are developing advanced technology of their own.
“From the beginning we weren’t looking at Lucid or the Air as going after Tesla,” Jenkins said. “There is a huge market out here that is not yet driving electric vehicles. We see a tremendous advantage with our technology and the layout of our vehicles over internal combustion” vehicles.
Lucid began accepting online preorders for the Lucid Air. The first 255 “launch edition” cars can be reserved for a $25,000 down payment and will carry a price tag north of $100,000. A specific price has not been set, Rawlinson said. The “standard edition” cars that follow can be held for $2,500 and the company expects they will ultimately cost roughly $65,000.
The Electric Drive Transportation Association counts 133,824 electric vehicles that were sold during the first 11 months of 2016. That’s slightly less than 3 percent of total automobile sales over that same period. Analysts expect the market will continue to grow, though estimates vary as to how quickly.
Attendees at last month’s Los Angeles Auto Show got a preview of the car, albeit cloaked in camouflage print. Company executives revealed then that the car would have a smaller frame than other luxury sedans, but still offer comparable passenger and cargo space due to the design of the car’s under-the-hood components.
Lucid Motors started in 2007 as a battery maker by the name of Atieva. The company originally planned to build batteries that could be used in other electric vehicles, but shifted gears in 2014 to instead start work on a car of its own. “As we expanded our efforts to developing complete powertrain systems, it became clear that the most direct route to increasing the number of electric vehicles on the road was to develop our own,” the company stated in October.
Lucid Motors revealed plans last month to build a production facility in Casa Grande, Arizona, an exurban community situated between Phoenix and Tucson. The company plans to break ground on the factory next year and start assembling cars in 2018. It expects to hire 2,000 workers there by 2022.