“Peter had this concept about miniaturizing powertrain components, opening up the interior space. It was an opportunity to break with that traditional sedan format, which has not changed much in 40 years,” says Derek Jenkins, Vice President of Design at Lucid Motors. Working with Lucid CEO Peter Rawlinson, Jenkins led design of the upcoming Lucid Air sedan and Project Gravity SUV that will follow in 2023.
“Our car could stay mid-size on the outside—a practical size like an E-class, easy to drive, easy to maneuver, good for performance—but have a full-size luxury sedan interior. Inside our car is more akin to a Maybach Mercedes, or a 7-Series. Those cars have incredibly large interior spaces, but they are also massive and often not the most fun to drive, intimidating for a lot of people,” says Jenkins. “But who doesn’t want all that interior space? We benchmarked other full-size luxury cars and wanted similar head and leg clearances, or better.”
“I wanted to keep the car low for a sleek, elegant design,” says Jenkins. “The rest was designing from the inside out to first get the interior space, then making the exterior look good with that much space. That’s when we started on the frunk and trunk, optimizing them. You only achieve that with a constant loop between design and engineering. That is part of our culture at Lucid. That’s the difference between designing a car and just skinning a car.”
“Lucid Air’s silhouette is different from an internal combustion car. Shorter hood, passenger cabin pushed forward,” says Jenkins. Battery-electric powertrains are not yielding the radical change in vehicle architecture many had hoped for, in great part due to crash safety regulations and considerable size of battery packs, but Lucid Air effectively exploits the advantages battery-electric technology affords at this point in time.
Moments after seeing photos or walking around the car, one experiences an epiphany, a revelation: there is no conventional windshield header connecting the A-pillars over the dashtop. Instead, the front seats are open to the sky, almost like in a glider aircraft.
“Glass reaches from the cowl…the windshield wiper area…all the way through the cabin to the rear passengers,” says Jenkins. “The A-pillars are pretty substantial, like most modern cars. Stamping profiles, how the metal is layered and bonded” gives the roof pillars tremendous strength. “Most cars don’t have the cross structure behind the driver’s head where Air has the majority of the strength transfer. Usually it’s the front header. The Air has outstanding rollover protection.” The B-pillars are connected with a robust spar running across the roof, best viewed from within the car.
“Material makeup [of the canopy] is similar to modern safety glass. It’s the processes where innovation lies. It will be the biggest piece of glass ever on the market. Tooling became challenging—we are on our third-generation molds to get the glass quality. The molds must be highly accurate.” According to CEO Rawlinson, the glass is a structural element, adding to the strength of the roof. According to both Rawlinson and Jenkins, strength of the roof pillars is entirely due to the folding of metal, bonding and riveting. There are no composite or other inserts within the pillars. “Entirely aluminium structure, bonded and riveted,” says Jenkins, including the roof pillars.
“When you think about the history of advanced automotive design, glass has always been the center. The fighter jet look of 1950s and ‘60s cars. The wraparound pillar glass of those cars made them look so modern for that period of time. Then the aero ‘80s, and the ‘90s when we were experimenting with larger canopy type concepts. We are finally there with Lucid Air,” says Jenkins. “To accentuate the canopy, I did wraparound rear glass rather than the typical squared. It gives the car a more three-dimensional profile. Someday there will be a seamless canopy.”
Unlike Porsche, which blended all-new battery-electric thinking with existing components to create Taycan, Lucid was quite literally starting from thin air. “To keep the car really low, a low seating position, with a large rear compartment, the rear suspension and drive units had to be super-compressed in size and pushed away from the occupants. A lot of tight packaging where we were contouring the solutions for the rear suspension, where the strut towers would be placed, how to keep that as wide as possible to enhance rear-seat comfort. At the front of the car I was pushing to have a clean clamshell hood and we needed a lot of space to make that possible with front suspension clearances. Dealing with all the regulations, if we were working with a carry-over architecture, forget it.”
Starting from thin air brings other advantages. At the start there were fewer than two dozen people at Lucid, though now there are more than 1700. “From day one, we started to build an in-house lighting team with optical physicists, engineers. We use micro-lens array technology—the lens is like a wafer with tiny lenses, hundreds of lenses on a one-inch element. I wanted the lights to be as slim as possible, hidden, to get away from this angry eye look that is really common. Move to something more linear and digital, more integrated,” says Jenkins. “If we could achieve that it would be the identity of Lucid Air.”
“The trend for some years has been to make the lights look like eyes. Now we have technology that is so digital we can have a different aesthetic. Also, this lighting technology is very efficient and draws down less power from the battery,” says Jenkins. “Incredibly accurate and focused placement of the light. And we get a minimalist aesthetic. Having that lighting team in-house allowed us to really push this, then find a suitable supplier to manufacture it.”
“Our aero group is led by Jean-Charles Monnet, who is formerly of Red Bull Formula One,” says Jenkins. Monnet was an aerodynamicist at Red Bull Racing in its heyday, from 2005 to 2014, when the team won four consecutive world championships. He joined Lucid in 2015, when the first sketches were coming together, and a team was coalescing around CEO Peter Rawlinson. “He pores over every detail to get those little tenths of a point. We get a little wind [ruffle] because it’s a glass canopy with no headliner, but you gain headroom. We are still doing final optimization around the windows and doors” for aero and wind ruffle. “All indications are we will be top of class,” says Jenkins. “Aerodynamic efficiency of the vehicle is a primary goal, aero is paramount. We have a more aircraft-like aesthetic. Lots of thermal efficiency.”
Lucid is very much a California interpretation of the premium luxury vehicle, and the aesthetics inside and out stand apart from the Germans, from Lexus, Jaguar and also Tesla. “Materials need to be authentic…high craftsmanship, high quality. We sought out a leather supplier that has a low-impact, low-toxic method, hardly any chemicals used in their tanning process,” says Jenkins.
“We have three different types of wood. American walnut. White oak in natural and dark tints. And a fully grown Eucalyptus, a tree that grows like a weed. It’s very rare in an automotive application. We think fabric can be luxury. We use Alpaca wool on the seat backs,” says Jenkins. Quality materials carefully assembled will always tell the story.
And then there is another advantage of developing a luxury car company from thin air in the advanced tech culture of California. “We did the entire user experience in-house. We hired a software team, and a user experience team. We pulled the talent from automotive, but also from the technology side. We did not want a huge monolithic central display. We went for simplicity, low learning curve. Not too many menus. Place things in familiar, logical locations. We don’t want an owner to dig through a menu,” says Jenkins. “At the end of the day, Lucid Air is a luxury car. It’s meant to be comfortable and relaxing.”
“Our original concept had a flat screen integrated into the dash with a hood cover. Technology was evolving and we wanted to create a contoured screen.” Once Lucid had identified a curved screen, they committed to levitating the wide “gauge pod” above the dashboard.
According to Jenkins, the industry is “still in the ‘place an iPad on the dash’ mode. We wanted a lot more three-dimensional curve and elegance. Once we established that floating display, everything else about the interior fell into place. We made the dash slim, airy and open. Sleek luxury, but simplicity and minimalism. It’s one thing to say simplicity or minimalism, but it can also feel cheap if you’re not careful. Finding that balance was a big priority.”
When asked about reflections upward into the expansive windscreen, Jenkins said, “As a designer I like light interiors. But you don’t want that on the upper dash, to avoid reflections. You need darker shades of black, gray, brown.” It’s an issue on any car with a fast windshield. Owners of exotic supercars, which have similarly fast windscreens, will know to spec dark interior colors because of Lucid Air’s front canopy.
“Winter of 2015, the car began to take shape on paper so you’d recognize it,” says Jenkins. “Then we spent 2016 developing our Alpha prototype, concept vehicle, clay models, couple of in-house static models. We showed that in 2016. In 2017 we started looking for our big fund raise to build the car, build our factory. I’d love to have the car on the road already.”