For a long time, there’s only been one player worth talking about in the electric car space - Tesla. The antics of chief executive Elon Musk and the company’s unbridled ambition and strong brand have overshadowed all others. But its crown is under threat from challengers large and small. Big car brands have begun to release electric models, and a slew of startups seek to challenge its dominance.
For one of them, though, Tesla is a red herring. Lucid’s chief technology officer is a Tesla alumnus who helped that company change the market forever with the Model S and the Model X, but he doesn’t see Tesla as his main competitor. Instead, Peter Rawlinson wants to beat the internal combustion engine at its own game.
His company, Lucid Motors, is merging with a blank-check company run by financier Michael Klein that values the combined entity at a pro forma equity value of $24bn, the biggest in a series of deals involving electric-vehicle startups cashing in on investor appetite for battery-powered cars.
We meet at the BNEF San Francisco Summit, where Cardiff-born Rawlinson says he sees his car as a rival to the Mercedes S-Class - not the Model S which he engineered. Mercedes, Audi and BMW are his main competitors. “Today there isn’t a luxury EV available for anyone to buy anywhere in the world,” he says. “I’m not hammering Tesla unduly here, I’m just an observer, I’m being pretty analytical. I think they’re beautifully engineered, super products, but not true luxury.”
Lucid, a California-based carmaker, was founded in 2007 and started its life as a battery company called Atieva, but helped by Rawlinson and design director Derek Jenkins, who joined from Mazda, it rebranded in 2016 and released teaser images of its first car. In September it received a $1bn injection from Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund, allowing it to launch commercially.
The launch of its first car, a sedan called the Air, took place last year. The car starts at less than $80,000 for the “basic” model and will set consumers back $169,000 for the Dream Edition, with a range of 517 miles and a 0 to 60mph of 2.5 seconds.
The company has a 10-year plan, which will eventually involve pricing cars down to $60,000 and producing 400,000 cars a year by the mid-2020s.
How will it avoid Tesla’s manufacturing problems? That company’s struggle over the past couple of years to move from a high-end brand to a mass-market manufacturer pushing out hundreds of thousands of cars saw endless self-imposed deadlines missed, Musk sleeping on the factory floor, and rumours of 12-hour shifts. Analysts have said Tesla’s teething problems can explained by its youth - in 2010 it was the first US auto company to go public in 50 years. But Rawlinson, who joined Tesla a decade ago and left in 2012, has been there.
“When I was at Tesla and we were designing Model S, the world was quite dismissive of what I was doing. No-one believed it was possible to make that car because we were a new company. But I knew how to do it, and I knew that I’d brought in a team of fantastic engineers, I’d built the best engineering team I’d ever worked with. And it’s very simple to me - if you’ve got the best set of professionals and you manage them properly, they’ll produce the best product, and the result was the best EV in the world," he says.
Surely it’s hard for a young company to produce a mass-market car at scale? As the production numbers rise, he says, “it does become much more a function of one’s manufacturing expertise.” But, “we don’t talk about Nissan having a problem, or Toyota having a problem, or BMW and Audi putting a new car into production. Those companies have professionals who know how to do that. There is no secret. In fact, productionalising an electric car is easier than a gasoline car, there are less parts.” Established car companies, he says, “allow their experienced professionals to do their job without meddling.” Is that the problem at Tesla? “I think most people know that.”
He's from a long line of engineers - his great, great grandfather was chief engineer on the first gasworks in Shanghai in the 1860s, his grandfather was in the royal engineers, and his father was a professional engineer who helped a young Rawlinson design and build cowsheds for his toy farm. He came to Tesla via Jaguar, where he says he was "one of the first people ever to start using a computer to design cars" in the 1980s, and then Lotus, which in his job as chief engineer led him to consulting in California in the 1990s, which "indirectly led to getting a call one day from Mr Elon Musk" and joining Tesla.
It’s clear that his role went beyond the standard responsibilities of the chief engineer - he says it extended to designing the office seating plan - and that his role at Lucid is wider than that of a typical CTO. He seems almost as interested in engineering interpersonal relationships as he is engineering cars. “You almost want to mirror the layout of the car with the layout of the seats in the office,” he says. “One of the great secrets to the efficiency that I implemented, the process that I implemented at Tesla, was based upon where everyone sat, to stimulate that inter-system interaction.”
Does he think his system has been kept on? "All I can say is that I think Model S was the product that was kept on track and on time. I was responsible for that - we met our timing.” He says he's been blessed with loyal employees, many of whom followed him from Tesla, and is driven by a strong "moral compass", inherited from his parents. "We try and do it right, we try and treat people right, as best we can."
So what of the ethics of accepting money from the Saudis? Companies funded by the country came under scrutiny last year after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Will the scandal affect their relationship? In response Rawlinson points to the “big picture”. “There’s a significant benefit to be had, and I think the fruits of that will be impactful upon all mankind, whether one drives a Lucid or not, because I think the air that we breathe affects seven billion people on this planet,” he says.
Lucid faces stiff competition from a slew of carmakers also snapping at Tesla’s heels - what makes Rawlinson’s company different? “They think it’s too easy, they underestimate the enormity of this task, and the very special set of circumstances which prevailed at Tesla,” he says. When he was there, California carmaker Fisker was the “hot company”, he says. “The smart money was on Fisker. Tesla was the underdog. Tesla had the high technology, Fisker outsourced its technology.” The situation now is the same, he believes - companies which outsource their technology will not succeed, and companies which build high-tech cars in-house will.
So what makes the Air so great? "Extraordinary performance and incredible technology, like no-one else has got," he says. "You can’t buy motors as advanced as ours. We do it all in-house, we don’t buy our motors." There’s also more interior space, created by a battery pack which is “sculpted around the occupants”. It’s a smaller car than the Model S, but he says it is bigger on the inside. Like a Tardis? “It is like a Tardis!”, he says. “This is going to be EV 2.0, the Tardis.”
This article was first published in September 2020