The Lucid Air EV Crushes 500 Miles-On-a-Single-Charge Barrier

Black Lucid motors vehicle driving down road
Photo: Lucid Motors

By: John Voelcker

If you’re an electric-car startup, you need an angle to make the world pay attention—especially if the media has portrayed you as a Tesla copycat for years. For Lucid Motors, that angle is simple: 500 miles of range—800 kilometers—on a single battery charge.

That would make its upcoming Lucid Air luxury electric sedan the longest-range electric vehicle in the world, way ahead of the 402-mile rating for the 2020 Tesla Model S Long Range Plus, today’s range champion.

The car itself will be revealed September 9, with production to begin within six months thereafter. The U.S. EPA won’t release official range estimates for the Lucid Air, however, until next spring, only a few weeks before the company says it will deliver its first production cars. So Lucid took the gamble of having its range tested by an independent third party with long experience in certifying cars to EPA test cycles.

Tuesday the EV maker announced independent verification of an estimated EPA range of 517 miles, based on tests conducted by FEV North America Inc. in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Those tests used the EPA’s Multicycle Test procedure, codified by the SAE J1634 standard, October 2012, the same one used by every maker when tested for emissions or battery range.

Your move, Tesla.

Lucid unveiled its Air electric luxury sedan in April 2017 but then had to go on hiatus for two years as it sought funding to take the design into production in a purpose-built factory in Arizona. As CEO Peter Rawlinson explained to Motor Trend earlier this year, funders at the time were excited by autonomous-vehicle technology as well as numerous other EV startups.

It took two more years for Lucid to raise enough funding to move into production. It ultimately received $1.3 billion from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund, in exchange for more than half the company, according to documents revealed in June.

The company laid off no engineers. And, in the intervening two years, the team changed the design of the Air’s battery cells, the pack voltage, the power electronics, and the electric motors that power the wheels—two motors on introduction, potentially three later on.

The 2017 Air prototype used a a whopping 130-kilowatt-hour battery (against the 100 kWh of the highest-spec Model S) operating at 400 volts. It had AC induction motors and 150-kilowatt fast charging. Its range was promised to be “more than 400 miles.”

The car that is to go into production next spring will have a somewhat smaller, more energy-dense pack—Lucid isn’t giving numbers at the moment—operating at around 900 volts, a pair of permanent-magnet motors, and 350-kW fast charging. The range will be at least 517 miles, per the tests, and could go higher if it can get the same 0.75 EPA “adjustment factor” for efficient air-conditioning that let the Model S Long Range Plus squeak past the 400-mile mark. (Standard factor is 0.70.)

The changes, as CEO Peter Rawlinson told Spectrum several months ago, were all in the service of efficiency—getting as much range and performance out of every kilowatt-hour by reducing air resistance, wasted energy due to resistance, and mechanical friction in every aspect of the car. To do that, he told us this week, an EV company has to engineer not only the car but every facet of its electric powertrain.

The most visible aspect of an EV’s efficiency is its design. The Lucid Air offers a longer cabin and more legroom than the long-wheelbase version of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Rawlinson says, despite having the footprint of a mid-size car like a Honda Accord. While it “reads” big visually, he notes that it’s smaller not only than the Tesla Model S but even the Porsche Taycan, which has far less interior volume.

The smaller footprint and low height gives the Air a smaller frontal area than competitors, which multiplied by the lowest drag coefficient in its class (0.21), requires less energy to displace air than other EVs. (Note that each maker does its own Cd testing, so drag coefficients from different brands may not be directly comparable.)

One of Rawlinson’s passions is the necessity for any electric-car maker to engineer all the critical components of its powertrain in-house: battery pack, motors, inverters, transmission, and software. “Every detail adds up,” he stressed, returning to the theme multiple times over the course of an hour-long chat with Spectrum.

He laid out the advantages he feels Lucid has over every other EV maker—in each area.

Battery Pack

Despite having no cars in production just yet, Lucid already has a trove of data on the performance of its batteries under extreme duty cycles. That comes from the experience its parent company Atieva garnered when it provided battery packs to all 24 cars fielded by the competing teams in the Formula E electric-car racing series.

The revised pack that will launch in the Air operates at “significantly over 900 volts,” permitting fast charging at up to 350 kW and reducing resistance heat. Like other packs, its cells are packaged into modules (or “bricks,” as Rawlinson calls them), that make up the building blocks of the pack.

Although Lucid isn’t giving details about the cell chemistry it jointly developed with battery partner LG Chem, it uses thousands of 21700-format cylindrical cells (as Tesla does). Lucid and LG Chem together engineered a specific cell architecture with lower-resistance connectors, again in the service of reducing energy wasted as heat due to resistance.

Rawlinson lauded LG Chem, as a long-term and dedicated partner. And, he added, that company’s global cell-production capabilities relieved him of that responsibility. “Thank goodness I don’t have to build a gigafactory!”

Traction Motors

One of the secrets to the Lucid’s packaging is an “ultracompact” motor, one Rawlinson says produces 55 kW per liter of volume, an output density he says is two to three times that of any other maker’s motor. One of the secrets to its efficiency is what he describes only as a novel (and heavily patented) method of cooling that puts liquid closer to the core of the motor, unlike traditional designs with coolant circulating around the periphery.

The Lucid motor spins at up to 20,000 rpm, with unspecified breakthroughs in the magnetic design to reduce cogging losses—the torque produced by a permanent-magnet motor due to the interaction of the magnets and the stator slots, especially noticeable at low speeds. Again, the CEO was cagey about exactly what the design advances were. More details may emerge next month when the car is revealed.

Inverters

While Lucid’s use of silicon-carbide MOSFETs for switching doesn’t do much for the EPA test cycles that determine its range rating, Rawlinson suggests they reinforce range in the much broader array of uses in real-world driving. And he spoke sadly of a (non-Tesla) competitor’s use of a third-party inverter, noting that mixing high-voltage insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) components with MOSFETs wasted energy.

Transmission 

Rawlinson set his design team to develop the e-motors and the transmission as a “single rotational system” to ensure the most integrated and compact device possible. The gearbox hasn’t been shown yet, and the company has applied for multiple patents.

One example Rawlinson was willing to discuss, however, was the 3-dimensional shape of the gear teeth themselves—an area few makers spend much time on. Lucid has patented the involute profile of the gear teeth within its transmission, optimized for performance and efficiency to transmit maximum torque under power while spinning with the least resistance otherwise.

Software

“We are as much a software company as a hardware company,” Rawlinson cheerfully admits, echoing some investors’ mantra (both pro and con) for Tesla. From the control strategies for each component of the powertrain to a user interface he promises will be “revolutionary,” the creation and optimization of the Lucid Air’s software could be the topic of a whole series of articles by itself. We left the specifics of that topic for another day.

Before writing off Lucid as just another Tesla-wannabe, it’s worth noting CEO Rawlinson has been here before. Not only was he part of the group that created the 2002 Jaguar XJ, one of the earliest all-aluminum luxury sedans, but he led the team that engineered the actual 2012 Tesla Model S and put it into production.

I first interviewed Rawlinson in January 2011, when a Model S body-in-white on display at the Detroit Auto Show was drawing a steady throng of visitors. That was the first time that other car makers began to think Tesla might actually know what it was doing.

Back then Rawlinson was so exhausted he was sleeping under a conference table between interviews. But he was articulate and passionate about the challenges of building the world’s first serious long-range electric car—at a time, remember, when the then-new Nissan Leaf offered an EPA rating of 73 miles.

This week, Rawlinson was equally articulate, if anything more passionate, and rather better-rested. His entire mantra for the Lucid Air was to rethink every aspect of efficiency, to dispense with anxieties over battery range once and for all.

“I want to move from range anxiety to range confidence,” he said. Indeed, an EPA-approved range of more than 500 miles should really end discussion over how far electric cars can travel, since it’s the rare driver whose bladder will permit that range to be used.

The Lucid Air, he said, targets not the Tesla Model S—the de facto assumption by much of the press—but the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the pinnacle of luxury sedans built and sold in high volume. In 2012, he said, few S-Class owners would have considered an electric car. Now, Tesla has proven the concept, and they’re willing to make the leap. But they won’t leave for a vehicle as stark as a Tesla, he said, so that’s where Lucid is starting.

The company’s goal, he said, is to provide EVs that deliver enough range to end that concern for good. Then, it will launch versions with smaller, less-expensive batteries that might provide “only” 350 miles of range. And, he notes, the company’s battery packs are carefully designed for high-volume assembly, its motors engineered for mass CNC production.

The Lucid CEO sounds most excited about the possibility of using the company’s ultra-efficient powertrain in smaller vehicles that would, he says, “cascade into the mass market, so the man in the street can buy an electric car” with no compromises.

“That’s what drives me,” he said. The Tesla Model S? “Not a bad first effort, not bad.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 11 August 2020.