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Inside Lucid: behind the scenes at Tesla's worst nightmare

One of America’s brightest electric car startups is burning stacks of cash faster than Christopher Nolan’s Joker. So, what's really going on at Lucid?

Published: 05 Apr 2024

Imagine it. Your very own clean sheet car company. You confidently seduce investors with talk of offering the business class ambience of a Maybach S-Class, Porsche Taycan-shaming performance and the longest range of any EV on Earth. Why yes, of course you’re going to be making electric cars.

You’ll be headquartered in mid-California, equidistant between San Jose and San Francisco. Nice this time of year. Every time of year. A VR headset’s throw from Meta’s base, if you need to poach some coding magicians. Chassis and design nous will be snared from Europe’s elite. And you’ll perform a brain drain on Tesla, just to wind up Elon. He’ll throw some barbs on X, but it’s not as if anyone will see.

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Welcome back to reality, as I furnish you with the raw, unvarnished numbers. In 2023 Lucid Motors aimed to manufacture up to 14,000 Air saloon cars, but only managed to stamp out 8,428. In the first nine months of last year it registered a $2.17 billion (£1.7bn) loss – $630 million (£475m) evaporated between July and September alone. Even Manchester United couldn’t manage that.

Photography: Mark Fagelson

In December, Lucid’s chief financial officer resigned. Her unconvincing resignation letter stated, “I am confident in Lucid’s future... I look forward to watching the company continue to grow.” Meanwhile, EV demand in the US cooled from over-caffeinated forecasts, prompting Ford to cancel the extra shift it’d laid on for mass F-150 Lightning production, and forcing Tesla to slash prices as it (successfully) sought to shift over one million vehicles in a calendar year.

Not pretty, is it? Down the financial plughole splutters another plucky would-be Tesla with big dreams, taking with it the fortunes of a few starry eyed shareholders and the livelihoods of thousands. Right? Wrong. Lucid’s amid a monumental land grab. Losses? No. You’re a business mogul. They’re investments.

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The bougie EV startup is fervently testing its seven-seat SUV, called Gravity. The first phase of a monstrous factory in Arizona was completed in 2020 – when it reaches its final form it could crank out 400,000 cars a year. Another facility in Saudi Arabia is on its way to churning 155,000 cars per annum. Why there? The kingdom has ordered one hundred thousand Lucids over the next decade in a covenant to wean itself off oil. It’s not as philanthropic as it sounds: Lucid owes its pandemic disrupted survival to a cool $1bn (£790m) of Saudi funding.

Back at home, deep within its Californian base, work is underway on a third model: a circa £45k Tesla Model Y challenging SUV. How’s your nerve?

And while you can’t buy a Lucid yet in Europe, you might have come across the name last June, when this upstart, this whippersnapper – which only announced as recently as 2016 it had intentions of building cars – agreed a reputed £182 million deal to supply a rejuvenated Aston Martin (born 1913) with futureproofed battery and motor technology. Or that pitch perfect casting call in season four of Succession.

28 minutes 17 seconds

This is the template for a 21st century car company. You don’t start humble in grandad’s shed and hope to slowly enrapture a loyal following. You go big, you incinerate money and you make damn sure you never quite outrun your swelling share price. In 2021 Tesla’s stock was valued at $1 trillion (£790bn) – only the sixth company in history to get there. After years of bruising losses and a 2009 government bailout, it made its first profit in, ahem, 2020.

The real life human being tasked with coaxing Lucid through its own production hell is a softly spoken Welshman who drinks his tea from a mug emblazoned with the red dragon. CEO and CTO Peter Rawlinson took his Imperial College mechanical engineering degree to Jaguar, where he was chief of body structures. Then he was the chief engineer at Lotus. A sports car he designed in his spare time, christened the Imola, formed the genesis of the Elise.

You’d imagine its role as the origin of Tesla’s embryonic Roadster would be how Peter came to find himself working for Elon before he was infamous. Weirdly, just a coincidence. It was 2009 when Musk was desperate for a renowned engineer to save the foundering Model S development, and several industry colleagues recommended Rawlinson for what he must have thought would be the job of his life.

“Franz von Holzhausen designed the shape of the Model S a few months before I arrived,” he recalls. “I arrived in January 2009 and the shape had been conceived in late ’08. That was pretty much cast in stone. So it was an interesting intellectual puzzle really to fit all the technology into that predetermined exterior shape.

“It was conceived around preconceived notions of what a car should be, with a long hood for a V8. That meant that the interior space inside the Model S was compromised for the position of an engine which didn’t exist,” he complains matter of factly. This is why you’ve heard us moaning about legroom in Tesla’s saloon. Rawlinson’s career long catchphrase – a mantra instilled into Lucid – is “every millimetre counts”. (For Americans, that’s every 25th of an inch.)

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I ask Peter where his engineer’s bloody mindedness manifests itself. “Everywhere.” He rattles off a quickfire list. The front boot, which at 280 litres is three times what you get in a Tesla with a front motor. Their battery packs are stacked in a slight upward curve, to allow the diffuser to start under the B-pillar, not a token plastic tray under the rear bumper. Hey presto, less drag. World record slipperiness, in fact. Which helps a 112kWh battery pack deliver over 500 miles of claimed range on the USA’s more stringent test cycle, yet it charges faster than what Peter calls the “storied European brands”. And somehow still offers Rolls-Royce legroom inside. It’s the same sort of virtuous circle thinking that makes a GMA T.50 weigh less than a tonne. After 10 minutes with him I recognise Rawlinson shares that ‘Why doesn’t everyone do their engineering as properly as me?’ streak with Gordon Murray.

Problem is, the Lucid Air is phenomenally clever. And the public hasn’t bought clever cars en masse since the Citroen DS. BMW couldn’t sell lightweight, bespoke i3s. Original Mercedes A-Class? Honda Insight? RIP.

The Audi A2 tanked – despite clean, fuel saving, aero led looks from Derek Jenkins, who now heads up Lucid’s design department. Automotive history is pebble dashed with cautionary tales of blue sky thinking which a disinterested public shrugged at.

I’m shown into a secret room where Lucid displays cutaways of its miniaturised motors, differentials, control electronics, suspension and brakes, alongside equivalents from Tesla, Rimac and Mercedes. They look like Brunellian ironmongery, dwarfing the elegantly shrinkwrapped Lucid components, which are inevitably more powerful, better optimised, lighter, cleverer. More range. More legroom. But it’s not translating yet into bums on seats.

“We sold 6,000 cars [in 2022], which is not good enough,” admits Peter, suddenly stony faced. “We’re a completely new entry. Many people haven’t even heard of Lucid. We’ve faced incredible challenges with high interest rates and the impact of macroeconomics. When I talk about a million cars a year [his stated ‘satisfaction goal’] I’m deadly serious, but not at the price point we’re currently at. We’re currently competing with Porsche and Mercedes.”

 

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Like Tesla, the game plan is to amass a few quid selling deluxe 1,000bhp EVs to high rollers and spend that dosh on a people’s car. Except, trickledown EV-nomics tends to dissolve on contact with reality. Elon promised the same, but the cheapest Model 3 is £40k (today). I pry him a little on how exactly he expects a company whose flagship is a £195k, 1,234bhp saloon capable of 0–60mph in under two seconds to be the great hope for democratising sustainable transport.

“The most profitable traditional car company is Porsche. It tends to operate between $50,000 and $250,000. I think that’s a nice place to be. What I seek is to create a multiplier effect through making powertrain technology available to other car companies. Our Air Sapphire technology suits Aston Martin. We’ve got a mid-size platform coming in just a few years’ time that would suit a family car.” In short, Lucid doesn’t have to actually build the people’s car, where profit margins are less girthy. “That could be licensed. Our drivetrain technology would suit hydrogen fuel cell or a petrol hybrid as well.”

Imagine that. Syndicate the tech to a mass market player to save them the bother and use the payoff to shore up the business. Bugatti and Rimac got into bed with each other. Why not Lucid and Dacia?

As you can tell, Peter isn’t a coy boss. He doesn’t flinch when I ask if there’s a ticking clock from the Saudi Public Investment Fund (which owns a 60 per cent stake in Lucid, bankrolling the cash burn), calling them “firm, loyal supporters of this company through thick and thin” and only appearing briefly weary as he admits “I feel huge personal pressure to turn this business around to become a profitable entity”. The irony: an oil rich authoritarian state writing cheques for a breezy Californian carmaker to do without fossil fuels.

He notes the Chinese newcomers are “frighteningly good, which I wouldn’t have said if you’d asked me three years ago”, (though an import cold war means they won’t be eating into US market share soon) and believes the European old guard will struggle in the electric transition versus a startup.

“How good are their engineering teams? I don’t believe I would’ve been able to do this at, say, Jaguar because I don’t think anyone would’ve empowered me in my role and my capacity to have the influence on the product. And the same is true at Tesla. The influence that I was given to engineer Model S – I don’t think I would’ve been granted that in a traditional car company.”

25 minutes 21 seconds

And he wants more. He wants five miles per kilowatt hour of efficiency as a standard. He speaks passionately about having a tangibly positive effect on carbon emissions and climate change. Is he looking further ahead for the next adventure, a new challenge? “I’m wedded to Lucid. This is the culmination of everything I’ve worked for.”

Next in the pipeline is the Gravity SUV. Just an Air up in the air? Nope. Same pebble smooth design that design chief Derek describes proudly as a “bullet train effect” with the trademark slender headlights, and lack of gimmicks – no cameras for door mirrors here. What’s on his mood board? “Aircraft. They have an honesty to their design, yet they’re aesthetically pleasing.”

But inside, the look and operation has been entirely rethought, with a shrunken steering wheel (“a yoke has a learning curve”) and a prominent eyeline display. “This is unique in the market,” says Derek, before I interject in defence of Europe pointing out Peugeots have had something similar for over a decade. Not sold in the USA though, and in fairness Lucid’s is beautifully resolved, with crisp screens and a much more adaptable driving position than the French ‘i-Cockpit’.

What’s most refreshing – unusually so for a startup – is recognition that more tech isn’t necessarily better. So there’s a Saab Night Panel-style ‘digital detox’ mode two swipes away that dims every readout except the speedo. “It’s not rocket science, but we think people will appreciate that.” Word.

I’m led away from the airy design studio through a corridor into what looks like a production line. “I thought your factory was in Arizona – what’s this?” I splutter, eyeing 40-odd Air saloons and several Gravity mules. “These are just for the test fleet. Hot weather, cold weather, Nürburgring, endurance, software, suspension...” It shows the scale of the ramp-up that this is just one modest cul-de-sac of the operation. Every one destined to be abused, harvested for data, then crushed.

The chassis team rented a BMW M5, and liked it so much they bought it

I’m offered a local drive in a hard-used Gravity mule. It’s on laptop life support and the cabin is entirely 3D printed, so this isn’t a review. Tell you what though, it’s very swift, has a languid ride quality to shame a Range Rover’s and the small wheel/big screen concept is instantly more intuitive than any of the recent attempts by the European hegemony to reinvent the steering wheel. No wonder they’re frantic to get this absolute unit into showrooms. It’s still far from cheap, starting around $80k (£63k) and not confirmed for right-hand drive. But the packaging takes advantage of what we were promised from the EV revolution in a way even a Tesla or a Rivian doesn’t quite manage.

As you can tell, this dive into the Lucid nerve centre was head-meltingly impressive. The company’s production ambition and dedication to engineering ideals is deeply endearing. Lucid projects the technical focus of Porsche with none of the stuffiness, it apes Tesla’s maverick joie de vivre but there’s zero sense that you’re trapped in a cultist compound. Critics shudder at the Saudi backing, but proponents will argue it’s better they’re investing here than literally anywhere else. I doubt that MG’s happy customers lose much sleep over China’s politics.

I’ve run out of space to tell you about the stomach troubling drive I had with Lucid’s ex-Jaguar chassis boss David Lickfold (“Remember it like an envelope: send it”) on Skyline Boulevard, the highway between San Jose and San Francisco and his team’s favourite local proving road – part Scottish Highlands, part Route Napoléon. About how his benchmarking team rented a BMW M5 CS and Cadillac CT5 Blackwing when setting up the Air Sapphire, but liked the M5 so much that they bought it and keep it at the company’s headquarters. How nine of his colleagues have modified Honda S2000s, and race in the 24 Hours of Lemons. They’re all proper, slightly bonkers petrolheads.

They do up muscle cars when they’re not tuning torque vectoring and expensive suspension to bless the Air Sapphire with handling you simply would not believe – it does cosset like a big Benz yet flick from bend to bend like a Taycan. Better, in fact. Like the love child of a Jaguar XJ, a BMW M car and a Porsche. In an afternoon it rockets from obscurity to become the most engaging, complete electric car I’ve ever driven. It’s a world beater – potentially. You’d be heartbroken if you were in charge of a company building a car this well sorted, and the world failed to notice until it was too late.

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