Experience has taught us to be wary of any “car of the future.” Decades’ worth of cool concept vehicles with that title never made it near a production line. Grand failures like DeLorean stood as warnings to anyone who would innovate outside the conservative carmaker club. Tesla only bucked the trend, according to the latest reporting, with a lot of charismatic bluster from Elon Musk and a lot of skill from his estranged engineering guru, Peter Rawlinson, the father of the Tesla Model S.
Now Rawlinson has unveiled the first fruit of his new company, Lucid Motors. Some 13,000 pre-order customers will be taking delivery of the Lucid Air, or rather its extremely expensive $169,000 Dream edition, starting in October. We’ve known what the Lucid Air looks like since Rawlinson showed us in 2020 and compared it to a TARDIS (it does indeed feel bigger on the inside). We knew it gets a world’s-best 520 miles per charge, according to the EPA.
What we didn’t know was how it drove, or exactly what was under the hood of this suspiciously secretive car of the future. That changed Tuesday at Lucid’s sprawling million-square-feet factory in Casa Grande, Arizona, an hour south of Phoenix, where there was nothing but flat desert two years ago. During a bladder-testing three-hour tour, we were shown a production line where every aspect of making EVs — heck, of making cars, period — has been meticulously re-thought.
The line’s precision and care, with multiple redundant quality control tests from battery pack assembly to “squeak and rattle” track, seemed like a middle finger to Musk — whose Tesla production process is famously haphazard, corner-cutting, and full of grueling shifts that spill out of the factory and into temporary tents.
And then, finally, after years of waiting, a small group of media folks got to actually drive the Dream Edition. Smiles spread across once-skeptical faces. Because of the GT-like handling and torque, yes, but also because so much thought has gone into the interior experience. Sitting in the roomy back seat (which we also did) seems like something you could happily do for hundreds of miles at a time — and even when all occupants are over 6 feet tall, everyone has plenty of legroom.
The Air banishes car sickness alongside range anxiety, because you never feel like you’re crammed inside a box. Rather, you feel like you’re in the observation deck of a high-speed train. A roof that is (bar one bar) made of infrared light-blocking glass keeps everything cool within, while specially-designed gills draw heat out from inside the car. You won’t need to crank the AC to max unless you’re in hundred-degree temperatures (it was 90 degrees in Casa Grande, and we had our Air’s AC at less than half capacity). But even if you do, it’s whisper-quiet. (As EV drivers know, running the AC zaps charge.)
The extra sky view was almost a distraction for this driver. The 34-inch dashboard display that curves subtly around the steering wheel was not; it’s more width than height. There’s also what Lucid calls the “pilot panel,” another screen angled up to look at you from the area where automakers normally put the temperature controls and the cupholders (which, in the Lucid Air, are hidden in the center console). The pilot panel, sized like a regular iPad, can be stowed if necessary, but I never found it the slightest bit distracting either.
Rawlinson was careful not to use any “car of the future” language introducing the Air. Instead the soft-spoken Brit obsessed over innovations like the miniaturized 1,100 HP power train and the brain of the vehicle, a “Wunderbox” that turns the car into an AC/DC battery that can theoretically charge your house or other cars. Lucid execs enthused that they could make smaller, less powerful versions of both, for anything from a VW Golf on up. Indeed, their business model may rely on using the Air (and its SUV successor, the Lucid Gravity) as proof that its expanding factory can make components to fuel other automakers’ EV revolutions.
The aerodynamic exterior should be an inspiration to all-comers too. “I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but I believe this will be the prototypical silhouette for sedans in five to 10 years,” says Derek Jenkins, who designed the Air alongside Rawlinson. “Everybody’s eventually going to reduce everything down; we’re all going to make small cars with lots of space, and big cars with even more space.”
The Lucid Air (especially in its “DreamDrive” autonomous mode) feels like a blueprint for our AI-driven future.
He’s not wrong. The Lucid Air (especially in its “DreamDrive” autonomous mode) feels like a blueprint for our AI-driven future. In future generations, you can imagine designers simply flipping the chairs so a family can get on with bonding on a road trip while the car takes care of the road part. The miniaturization of components will allow more space and storage everywhere (such as the Air’s front trunk, or “frunk,” where the engine once was — which is larger than the Tesla frunk).
I wouldn’t make the claim that the Air itself is the car of the future. Certainly not before we see the $80,000 version. But this claim I will make: The Lucid Air is the future of cars.
Brakes and massages
As you might expect with a car this new, however, there are still some tweaks to be made. Tweaks either in future updates to the car, or in the way you need to drive it in order to live up to the designers’ intent. One small example: If you use the turn indicator the way you do in most cars, you’ll become one of those annoying drivers stuck in their lane with a turn signal on. Lucid’s indicator requires only the lightest nudge if you want it to go off automatically.
A larger example: You get the sense that Lucid really, really would like to get rid of the brake pedal the way it got rid of the parking brake (the brake is always on when the car is in P, which makes a lot of sense). If you’re not accelerating, or in DreamDrive, the car is (to some extent, depending on the gradient and the driving mode) decelerating for you. “You essentially learn to do one-pedal driving, which I love,” says Lucid’s chief engineer Eric Bach. “Every time I slow down, I don’t waste any calories. You hit the brake and you’re burning energy, heating up the brake pads, wearing out the discs.”
One-pedal driving is kind of a thing in other EVs too. But the Lucid Air’s regenerative braking feels a bit … extra. In the car’s default “smooth” mode, the brakes seemed to kick in like a horse the instant I lifted my foot — making a smooth driving experience, ironically, a little jerky. (You could get around this by switching to “swift” or “sprint” mode, but you won’t get the same range; “smooth” also offers better suspension.)
Would I get used to this? Probably; any new car requires adjustment time for the driver to use it in a way that is optimal to them. Which is why Lucid needs to make these cars available for test drives that last longer than 45 minutes. (It wasn’t supposed to be that long, even, but the Lucid employee in the passenger seat forgot to tell me when to exit the freeway.)
Another feature that would take some time getting used to, but in a positive sense, is the chair massage. There are five different massage styles built into the front two seats, using a mixture of vibrating and thumping — and as I and a shocked designer discovered during some time spent in a stationary Lucid Air, you can currently engage all five at once. This came as a surprise to the executives too, so it may not survive the next software update. But it was nice, albeit perhaps too distracting, while it lasted.
More importantly, the massages go further than most car massage options by focusing on the thighs. Lucid is well aware that sitting for too long is killing us, even if we exercise during the rest of the day. No amount of stopping to stretch our legs can make up for the harm that long drives cause — unless our cars can in some way stimulate the muscles in our legs. The fact that Lucid is even thinking of this is a sign of the meticulous attention the company pays to almost everything. And it’s yet another sign that the other cars of the future are going to have to up their game.
UPDATE: Sept. 30, 2021, 2:07 p.m. AEST The original version of this story stated that Casa Grande was an hour north of Phoenix. It’s actually south of Phoenix, and the error has been corrected.