Authored by honghatcdnc

Elon Musk's Alumni Strike Back

If Elon Musk were a normal, everyday guy, life on earth would be a whole lot simpler. For instance, we wouldn’t have to nervously watch rockets landing on heaving ocean barges. Or fret about being sucked across the country at 700 mph in some big Hyperloop vacuum tube. And car pundits such us would not have to explain something that wasn’t supposed to happen: the emergence of an all-new automotive brand in the beginning of the 21st century.

On the other hand, if Musk were a normal car company executive, his own life would be a lot simpler, too. Like the haughty Enzo Ferrari who famously antagonized Ferruccio Lamborghini into making his own supercar 50 years earlier, Tesla has trained an army of engineers and then inadvertently (or maybe intentionally) jettisoned many of them to where they’d inevitably coalesce into a couple of close-orbiting competitors. One, Lucid Motors—located in Menlo Park, California—recently unveiled its Air, which is technologically guided by Peter Rawlinson (the Model S’ original chief engineer) and Derek Jenkins (former chief designer at Mazda). In Gardena, California, is Faraday Future (FF), which is masterminded by Rawlinson’s Model S successor, Nick Sampson, and shaped by Richard Kim, who previously drew the cheeky BMW i3 (the car that popularized the pinched side-glass/floating-roof look that’s now de rigor in EV styling).

Until recently, both projects were cloaked in shadows. But in the past few weeks, I’ve had the chance to examine, sit in (in fact, nearly fall asleep in), stew over, and even briefly ride in both the Air and the Faraday car, which internally is called the 91.

Here’s my one-sentence summery of each: Think of the Lucid as the Model S 2.0 and the Faraday as the Model X that might have been had there been an intervention with Elon before he got all fixated on falcon-wing doors and bioweapon air filtration systems. It’s like Lucid and FF held a clandestine meeting a couple years ago at an all-night diner in Bakersfield. With the neon light flickering outside, they set down their cups of burned coffee on the Formica table and checked that nobody was listening. “OK, you go after the sedan, and we’ll go after the crossover. Deal? Deal.” Then they shook hands and headed back to Menlo Park and Gardena to get to work.

Visiting both companies is like entering Tesla refugee camps (300 employees at Lucid and a total of 1,400 at Faraday, worldwide). At one point I was sitting in the back seat of the Air and commented that it’s good to see cupholders back here. How dumb that the original Model S didn’t have any? An engineer crouching at the open door confessed that it was his bad. “You’re the guy?” I asked and turned to him with in an accusatory grin. He shook his head. “Elon overruled me,” he said. During our FF tour, I walked past Faraday Future’s battery-tech display and noted that the cylindrical 21700-type cells inside are stacked sideways in the modules. (They call them strings.) The engineer nodded. “Yes, different from what we did at Tesla.” This happens at every turn. Elon made us do this; at Tesla we did that. On and on.

X-ray past each car’s very divergent exteriors, and you’d see strikingly similar architectures. It’s as if each company laid a sheet of velum over the Tesla’s blueprints, traced its basics, then started their independent brainstorming. Both the Air and the 91 are stake-poled by Tesla’s dual-motor and battery landmarks, with their lithium-ion packs under the floor, bookended by powered axles. Lucid quotes about 1,000 combined hp (FF, 1050) with the majority of their horses stabled in their sterns; the Lucid distributes 600 hp aft (400 in front) with the FF at roughly the same ratio. Both companies speak of their Tesla-like frunk’s up front and ultra-long ranges (378 miles from the 91’s 130-kW-hr pack; Lucid’s base 100-kW-hr battery is expected to reach 300 miles, and its larger battery should equal Faraday’s claims). And there’s Ludicrous acceleration rates, too—estimated at 2.5 seconds to 60 mph for the Air (matching Tesla’s quickest Model S P100D) and 2.39 for the Faraday, marking it as potentially the quickest car in the world (though by an amount I wouldn’t exactly call meaningful).

The dual-motor Model S was everybody’s first taste of neck-snapping acceleration in the EV era. It was like going from P51 Mustangs to carrier-launched jets. I remember doing acceleration runs many years ago in a Ferrari F50—a historically fast car, yes? Halfway down the quarter, I was actually urging it along because it seemed, well, kind of slow to me.

I’d never say that rail-gunning down a dragstrip in a high-power dual-motor Tesla. When its Insane mode first appeared, Carlos Lago and I rushed out to sample it. With me mindlessly staring out the passenger-side window (i.e., me in Normal mode), Carlos suddenly tramped its pedal from a stop. My neck actually cracked, I winced, and I gave him my dagger-eyes look. The drivers who demonstrated the thrust of the Lucid and Faraday were well aware that surprise-throttle stomps can physically hurt you. Both told me to place my head against the headrest. Both cars discharged that same familiar Tesla gunshot thrust, though the Lucid was deliberately dialed down a bit because it was still under development.

From here, though, the Lucid and FF begin their technological divergence. The Faraday’s battery—an underfloor monolith (à la Tesla) is a series of easily expandable, side-by-side, stackable modules (depending on wheelbase length, or in FF lingo, its VPA, Variable Platform Architecture). When I noticed that the nose-mounted charge port’s cover looked unfamiliar, the Faraday engineer hesitantly explained they were creating their own receptacle besides the SAE CCS, CHADdeMO, and elegant Tesla designs. I’m hesitant to point out the implication of another charging infrastructure here. FF claims an empty-battery charging rate of 500 mph and half of a full charge in 4.5 hours from their included 240-volt home charger.

The Lucid Air (pictured above) disregards the FF’s simple, stacking modules for a highly sculpted, complexly shaped, and more three-dimensional battery that’s double-layered beneath the center console, entirely removed from the rear passenger’s footwell. When I asked whether it contained 18650 or the larger 21700 cells (used by Faraday and upcoming Tesla Model 3), the engineer was coy. I’m not sure they’ve decided yet. However, both cars are sourcing their cells from LG Chem.

But this unusual battery shape gets to the crust of how both cars architecturally splinter from the Model S and X. Each is utterly obsessed with maximizing interior space, and they aggressively remold their guts to that end. The Lucid moves portions of its battery from where people are to where they’re not. It has fanatically compacted its front and rear drivetrains (including a new type of tiny planetary-gear differential). The Faraday’s rear motor is actually two motors, back to back, with their own halfshafts. There are two reasons for this.

One of those reasons is to shrink their diameters. How come? To afford more rear seat-back angle for the optional reclining zero-gravity couches that lay you at a (literally yawning) angle. It was not only comfortable but also very familiar, as I’d sat in the Lucid’s virtually identical 55-degree-reclineable seat solution two weeks earlier. When I climbed out of the FF, Sampson asked if I’d like my Ubers to have seats like those.

But more important, when will these cars be fully autonomous? Everybody’s thinking the same thing here. Getting in and out of the FF will be a cinch, too, as both its front and rear doors (suicide-type) are powered and have proximity sensors and the smarts to lower their frameless windows in tight spots to lessen your wriggling.

Part of the Faraday’s vast rear legroom simply owes to its long wheelbase and crossover profile. Fitting people into the Lucid’s sedan silhouette isn’t as easy, hence those battery cutouts for the rear seats and no aft overhead roof cross member). Countering the long FF’s incumbent turning circle challenges is active rear-wheel toe control with a total range of about 7 degrees. In a demonstration, the FF revolved in a smaller space than a Model X.

The second reason is that at high speeds, the double punch of active rear toe with the torque vectoring from those two rear motors should make for stupendous handling opportunities. I got an inkling from my brisk lateral jolts through a lane change while hanging on for dear life.

Styling. Jenkins and Kim are two completely different designers whose jobs are less about logic and more about taste. But even here, threads of common think appear. For instance, both are expecting to jettison side mirrors for cameras (FF hedging its bet with a removable mirror atop a camera stalk). And both designers describe their cars as stacked layers; Jenkins speaks of the Air’s cabin floating above a lower fuselage, and Kim points out the FF’s three bands: the greenhouse (about experience and electronic interface), the middle (about comfort and security of the interior), and the bottom (about the electric drivetrain). Both cars also share unusual twin shark-fin antenna enclosures, though each claims different reasoning. The Lucid wants twin separate GPS antennas for heading analysis, and the FF is simply burdened with lots of data to communicate. Both the Lucid and FF have improbably short hoods—the antithesis of the old visual cue that a long hood signals more performance.

Visually, the FF is playfully active. Waves of flowing shapes intertwine and sometimes arrest your eyes’ movement. The best is the freestanding vertical ears offset from the D-pillars that help warp the wind behind the car. Neither car has elegantly solved the problem of lidar placement, though. For now, the FF places it on a rising periscope that ascends from the hood, and the Lucid rather optimistically hides them under the bumpers where they are not likely to wind up.

The Lucid Air will likely be more polarizing, mainly because it’s speaking with a mixed vocabulary of automotive and sophisticated consumer electronics design languages. Up close, the headlights—a major feature of automotive expression—are collapsed to two strings of three-quarter-inch-tall cubes encasing a total of 9,740 insectlike micro-lenses. And even these are so recessed that they’re invisible until you step back several feet. The Air is a car of subtle shapes and quietly crossing lines at gentle angles. At its introduction, I walked around it several times and then settled into to the rear seat to think. Remember our controversial Apple Car story? I think if Apple had followed through, it might have looked like this. In that sense, the Air really anticipates the future of automotive design as cars morph into rolling computers. (When I returned to Orange County Airport that night and walked to my car, I passed several Model S’s that seemed almost adolescent by comparison.)

If Apple has sympathy with the Lucid’s taut industrial design, the Faraday would appeal Cupertino’s emphasis on a lush digital ecosystem. We weren’t able to actually try any of its features, but their demos tasted Apple-like in their advanced blending of people and processing power. Remember how you’d smile when Steve Jobs explained a neat new feature?

As I walked up to the car, a video camera in the pillar recognized me and displayed, “Hello, Kim,” unlocked the door (there’s no key), and set the environment to exactly to my taste. Cameras inside the cabin analyze your mood and can auto-prompt an ambiance change; tap the smart glass panoramic roof (polymer dispersed liquid crystal), and it adjusts tinting. The view from the side and rearview cameras are blended into a single image, which replaces the rearview mirror. With a Faraday Future ID (FFID), your individual tastes can be transferred throughout the ecosystem of FF’s parent company, LeEco. And within restricted private parking lots, the 91 can drop you off and go find a spot by itself. (Its complement of sensors includes lidar, 10 cameras, 13 radars, and 12 ultrasonic sensors.)

There’s visual communication, too. When in use as a ride-hailing vehicle, individual colors will appear on the same pillars directing passengers to their door. Those shark-fin antennas (claimed to offer near broadband data rates by combining services) will change color, signaling to other drivers that they can use your car as a moving Wi-Fi hot spot. And most obviously, illuminated grids of FF’s cross-hatch graphics are streaked across the car’s front bumper, along its rocker panels, and between the taillights. They symbolically communicate patterns to other drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians to show that the car is aware of them, intends a lane change, or is in autonomous mode. (Like the Lucid, it welcomes you as you approach, too; the Air’s exterior lighting playfully greets you, plus broad sweeps of side lighting help you to better see curbs at night.)

This week during CES, Musk is holding forth with guests at the Gigafactory, a colossal reminder that creating a car company sometimes takes a leader who sees the rocks below the cliff of failure and doesn’t blink. Faraday Future is evidently treading near that edge. But for now, at tonight’s CES unveiling, it’s finally the car’s turn to communicate directly to you—not through rumors—what the rest of Musk’s alumni have been working so hard to create. How do you think it compares to the Lucid Air?