Peter Rawlinson is at work today. But like just about every office in America right now, it's quiet at the sprawling headquarters of Lucid Motors in Newark, California. Rawlinson is a tall, ambling Welshman with a quick smile who stands very close to you when he speaks. During those moments, he seems welded to the conversation you're having.
After graduating from Imperial College London, Rawlinson would go on to become the principal engineer at Jaguar, then later chief engineer at Lotus Cars. But by 2009, he found himself a hemisphere away at Tesla, where he would work on a project that would turn the automotive world upside down. Elon Musk had selected Rawlinson to be chief engineer of a small team that would design Tesla's first totally-new car—the Tesla Model S. Now, some 11 years later, Rawlinson holds a dual role as the CEO and CTO of Lucid Motors, which is a 16-minute drive north from Fremont's equally-quiet, Tesla factory.
Once, during those early Tesla days, I drove up to the then-shambolic Fremont factory, and sat with a clutch of journalists in a makeshift meeting room as Rawlinson explained what this car would be. He showed us renderings because well, the car didn't actually exist. But the drawings looked quite nice.
Rawlinson had a ready reply. "The Model S was a good first shot. But that hatch hurt the rigidity too much. I'm fixing all the mistakes I made with it," he said. They didn't allow photography that day, so I drew sketches of what I'd seen to accompany the story.
During my most recent visit—a soiree to debut the final production version of the Lucid Air to group of invited guests within a swanky showroom that doubles as Lucid's lobby—Rawlinson wandered up again, and asked, "Are you going to do drawings?" and smiled. That's no longer necessary. The Air is for real now and Lucid's factory in Casa Grande, Arizona, where it will be built is rapidly nearing completion.
But it's been a tortuous road. A roller coaster for a team that just never stopped trying to build this damn car. During that recent coming out party in the showroom, I was surprised at how many faces I recognized from 2016.
When my call to chat with Rawlinson clicked through, I hardly asked any questions; he seemed anxious to talk. I only had to pull the cork out before he was pouring me one story after another—an early history of Tesla that nobody's ever heard before. And of course, his obsessive drive to build what he insists will be a better car than the Model S. We spoke for nearly an hour.
Hi Peter. How are you?
Rawlinson: I'm in a largely empty office right now. There are only a few people here, looking after the absolute core necessities of the business. We've handed out super high-power laptops and have engineers working on release-ready design for production from home.
Tell me about this journey of yours. How did joining Tesla happen?
Rawlinson: It began 11 years ago when I got a phone call from Elon Musk. Things weren't going well with the White Star program, and Elon asked his people whether they knew a good engineer who could really do this.
I was home in the UK, and he wanted to know if I was interested. He even had a name for the car : Model S. I was very skeptical of electric cars. Throughout 2009, I was thinking, I'm not really convinced of the value proposition. But I listened to what he had to say.
Before I joined, I looked at the math and immediately saw that the energy density of a laptop's cylindrical cells would be a game changer. In 15 minutes, I realized that a car like Model S was actually achievable. I'm from South Wales where the Bristol Channel has the second highest tidal change in the world; that alone could be an incredible source of energy. I can't solve all the world's problems, but as a vehicle engineer, I can do my bit and solve this one jigsaw puzzle.
Anyway, I was a big proponent of electrification before the model S was complete. Two weeks later, I was running Tesla engineering, which had about six engineers to start with. I personally interviewed the whole engineering team, and we set up at Space X.
How did the development work?
Rawlinson: Model S was actually styled before I joined Tesla. My task was to retrospectively fit all the bits into it. It was a pretty interesting intellectual puzzle to design a car from the inside out. What I learned from that, however, is that to capitalize on the miniaturization of the electric power train requires interaction between design and engineering. This was missed in the Model S; it wasn't designed around the miniaturization of the electric powertrain; it was designed it to be a cool looking car. No one knew then what could be achieved by miniaturizing. But having gone through that loop, I realized there was an opportunity.
There's an old adage that in order to break the rules, first you must master them. Having that technology in-house would enable Lucid to break the rules. If we could successfully miniaturize the powertrain, we could create much more space for the occupants and this really led to the whole concept that I had. The great paradox is when the company, which was then called Atieva, asked me if I would be interested in doing an electric car, I said yes. Because I already had a vision for what it would be.
I said I'll join under two terms:
One was I wanted to design the best electric car imaginable. Surpass my last one, the Model S. I want to engineer my baby. The other is that you have to change the damn name. So we did (to Lucid).
What lessons did you learn from your Tesla years?
Rawlinson: Ten years ago, they were the underdog. The hot money was on Fisker. I was working my guts out on the Model S and slaving away with a very small team of brilliant engineers; I'd persuaded a lot of them to come and join me. While Tesla was the unheard of underdog, we had the real deal in terms of engineering talent—that was the differentiator.
At Lucid, we decided to create core technology that is very real and 100 percent in-house, and I'm so blessed that so many of the Model S brain trust came across to join me. The company is too big now, but until recently, I interviewed every single person that joined this company.
Update me on the car, now.
Rawlinson: What we've got running today is entirely different from the Alpha car we showed you in 2016. Completely different. It looks deceptively the same; I'd say its design has matured like a fine wine. But the powertrain is two generations different.
In the Alpha fleet, we ran induction motors with a 400-volt architecture. Now we are using permanent magnets motors at over 900 volts, with our own MOSFET inverter system which is just state-of-the-art.
So, both motors are permanent magnet now? I know those are more efficient, but are you decouple one of them while cruising?
Rawlinson: The conventional wisdom is that at light load, you either mechanically decouple one of the permanent magnet motors to avoid cogging losses, or you run a permanent magnet front, and an induction one in the rear [which can just be turned off as it doesn't need a clutch]. At light load, you effectively have front-wheel drive. But our losses are a step-change lower than anyone else, so we can use permanent magnet motors front and rear.
We can use one, two, or three of our motors, so the Air could have 600 hp, 1,200 hp, or 1,800 hp. Currently, we have 1,100 hp at the battery pack, and 1,000 hp from the two motors.
1800 hp? Is that a three-motor configuration?
Rawlinson: It's always been part of our plan, and that's a scoop for you, Kim. Meanwhile, since those Alpha cars, the battery has actually gotten smaller in terms of capacity, down from the original 130 kWh. You might say, hey that's a bad thing, but we've gained so much in efficiency, we can save some weight. Anyone can add dumb range.
Funding has been a roller coaster, right?
Rawlinson: We grew from about 20 people and little technology to speak of, to securing $200 million in Series C funding and creating our Alpha prototypes. But we didn't have the funding to take it to start of production. So in 2017 we embarked on seeking our Series D funding and thought it would be relatively straightforward. But there was a sexy new technology on the block: autonomous driving.
I'm relatively bearish about AVs, as I believe it's a much bigger intellectual challenge than meets the eye. Understand, there will definitely be Level 5 cars. But they're not going to be around anytime soon, and I think I could to set up six electric car companies for the same magnitude of investment. Still, Lucid has a great platform for autonomous driving—we're 'Autonomous Ready'—with Lucid Net, which is an ethernet, and more connectivity than those claiming they have a connected car.
So autonomous technology start-ups were soaking up all the funding?
Rawlinson: That, and suddenly a bunch of other EV startups in California. You know, Kim, it's quite extraordinary. Before Tesla, no one thought a new car was possible. After Tesla, suddenly everyone was doing an electric car, and they hadn't a clue how to do it. They thought, oh, the electric car powertrain is commoditized; buy a motor from the usual suspects, an inverter from another, and then the battery system. All you need to do is put a big screen in there. It really hurt us because we were genuine, with genuine technology.
There was a lot of noise out there from one of the EV startups, and I thought: You need luck, but you also need to make your own luck. We needed a validation point to show we are different. And what better than suppling the batteries to the world electric motor racing championship, Formula E? I decided that we should partner with our supply partner in the UK and bid for the battery pack. My team thought I was nuts because we were running low on money with our backs to the wall developing the Alpha prototypes in 2016. Williams Grand Prix Engineering had been building 28-kWh pack for the first few seasons that could last half a race distance. We tried to sell the FIA in Paris on the idea that we could make a 54-kWh one to last the full race.
There was a very stiff competition for that business against some pretty big names. Some were willing to do the whole thing for free. But I wanted it to be a profit center for Lucid. We surprised everyone and won, and to this day, we have a 100 percent reliability record with all 24 cars on the grid using a battery, designed, engineered, tested, and actually manufactured here in this building. They say that technology always transfers from racing to road cars. I can think of virtually no example of that until what we did with Formula E; its DNA is in the Air's battery pack.
How about the classic example of the disc brakes on the Jaguar D-Type?
Rawlinson: They were wretched brakes! Dunlop Two Parts—I've got them on my 3.8-liter Jaguar E-Type. But look at crumple zones or airbags; road car programs have much bigger budgets and much more science behind them.
And then the Saudi investment happened
Rawlinson: Things weren't looking great until we found the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. They usually don't invest in pre-revenue companies, so it was a leap of faith for them.
PIF wanted to invest in new mobility because they have a vision for Saudi Arabia to become an economy less dependent on fossil fuels. They applied the most stringent and deep dive technical due-diligence of any investor we spoke to, and they came to the conclusion that Lucid is very real.
In Spring, 2017, I said that as soon as we secure a Series D, we'd be about two years from start of production. That's been misquoted as me saying we'd be in production by Spring of 2019. But I never actually said that. What I said was as soon as we get a Series D, it'd be two years, a straight shot. So far, we been holding to that timing.
That ties-in to the issue of skepticism
Rawlinson: I remember taking the Model S to the Detroit Auto Show in January, 2010, and the adversarial nature of that press conference. Elon didn't go; I was on my own —sick with a 102-degree temperature—and the adversarial nature of that event was shocking to me. 'He used to be chief engineer at Lotus, and now he's lost the plot. Peter, you must know this isn't possible. What's the scam? Are you taking the DOE's money?'
Now I'm having a sense of déjà vu, with history repeating itself: Lucid is being put down by Tesla fans. Those old petrol fan boys are the current Tesla fan boys. Very similar rhetoric. But to a degree, I can empathize; there's a group of less credible EV startups in California who gave us a bad name. We get linked to them in people's minds. So when I claimed that we would have a 1,000-hp car, or have over 400 miles of EPA five-cycle range, nobody believed it.
But everybody on the Model S team knows I was all over every detail and drove everybody crazy trying to create a car that had to be better and better in every way. I'm still driving for that, and that's why we've got 16.7 kW-per-liter [power density] in our power unit. No one has done that. Tesla hasn't done that.
Is this the journey's home-stretch?
Rawlinson: We are in a frenetic stage now, with just nine months from start of production, and now there's a long push in three areas: the car, the factory, and the showroom and sales. I just signed a lease on a store in San Diego this morning, and we've secured leases on a number of others.
When we come through this, the world will need sustainable mobility more than ever. For instance, if pandemics are going to be part of the new landscape, we need biodiversity—which is what global warming is eroding—to develop new remedies. I really believe that we are connected to something that can change the world for the better by developing the best EV technology imaginable. I've been at this now for nearly seven years. It's not always been a clear path, but if you're really committed to something, you just turn adversity into opportunity.
A lesson for everybody right now. This has been—shall I say it—a very Lucid conversation. Thank you, Peter.