It’s a cool spring morning in Menlo Park, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. 

In a two-story concrete-and-glass building on Constitution Avenue, just down the block from Facebook’s vast fortress, a group of automotive engineers and designers is working to create the next-generation luxury high-performance all-electric sedan.

A Tesla Model S version 2.0, if you will.

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But although there’s a Model S v1.0 parked in an engineering workspace on the first floor of the building, this next-generation car is no Tesla.  

Crouched a few feet behind the Model S is a sleek sedan, a silver teardrop of cab-forward design, with huge alloy wheels, a strip of tiny bug-eye headlights, and a roof made entirely of glass. 

A glance through the glass roof reveals a massive rear-seat space occupied by two preposterously overstuffed reclining seats separated by an iPad-size screen.

Oh, and by the way, a prototype of this car has clocked 235 mph.

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Tesla challenger

This is the Lucid Air, an ambitious challenger to the Model S created by a brash newcomer of a company that includes a number of Tesla veterans in key positions. 

Lucid is saying the Air will be in production by 2019. The base model, starting at $60,000, will have a 240-mile range and a 400-hp motor with rear-wheel drive. More expensive versions will have the reclining seats, dual motors totaling 1,000 hp, and a maximum range topping 400 miles.

In the race to develop Model S v2.0—a race that currently includes  (presumably) Tesla, Mercedes, Audi, Lucid, and the additional  brash newcomers Faraday Future and Fisker—Lucid seems to be leading the pack at this early stage.

WATCH THIS: Lucid Air electric car video shows luxury sedan on the road

Though the Model S has been continuously improved with more power, bigger batteries,  all-wheel drive, autonomous-driving hardware, and software updates, the basic design, circa 2009,  has remained unchanged.

With a clean sheet of paper and 5-6 years of advancing technology, the Air’s creators have the opportunity to leapfrog the Model S and significantly advance the state of the luxury-electric-sedan art.

Can they pull it off?

As a long-time owner of a Model S, I was eager to find out. 

2013 Tesla Model S, in July 2017 [photo: David Noland]

2013 Tesla Model S, in July 2017 [photo: David Noland]

Company history

Lucid Motors began in 2007 as Atieva.

Co-founded by Bernard Tse (an early Tesla VP and board member) and current Lucid Motors COO Sam Weng, Atieva  began as a developer of battery packs for motorcycles, cars, and buses.

In 2014, the company started working on a car based on its core battery technology.  A 900-hp Atieva testbed electric van called Edna later raced Teslas and Ferraris in a series of YouTube drag races.

CHECK OUT: Lucid Air luxury electric car: Bloomberg gets brief ride

Late last year, the company changed its name to Lucid Motors and introduced the Air.

Designers, engineers work together

From the design and engineering standpoint, the Lucid Air has one big advantage over the current Model S:  it’s been created from a clean sheet of paper in a side-by-side collaboration between the stylists and the engineers.

It didn’t work that way with the Model S.

2012 Tesla Model S prototype

2012 Tesla Model S prototype

I remember seeing an early Model S show car with blacked-out windows at the Plaza Hotel In New York In the spring of 2009.

From the outside, it looked pretty much like the current car, but I was told it was just a shell for display, with no battery, powertrain, or interior.

They hadn’t really figured that stuff out yet.

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

Peter Rawlinson, Lucid’s Chief Technology Officer, was Tesla’s chief engineer during those early days of the Model S.

“Franz von Holzhausen, the Model S designer, had been hired about six months before I was,” Rawlinson told me.

“By the time I arrived, the styling of the car had already been completed. My job was to fit the engineering bits and pieces inside that style.”

Peter Rawlinson, previously Tesla VP and chief engineer, now Lucid Motors chief technology officer

Peter Rawlinson, previously Tesla VP and chief engineer, now Lucid Motors chief technology officer

“It was up to me to make that shape viable," he recalled. "That’s a very different intellectual puzzle than starting from scratch.”

By contrast, Rawlinson and Lucid Design VP Derek Jenkins have worked together from the beginning to combine style and engineering in the most efficient way.

Rawlinson and Jenkins took the basic Model S architecture and stretched out the wheelbase, then remolded the slab floorpan battery to allow more room in the passenger space (particularly the rear footwell).

“We weren’t constrained by having to use the battery pack as a major structural member,” says Rawlinson.

Intense miniaturization efforts were aimed at the the front and rear drivetrains and suspensions to further maximize interior space.

Rawlinson even inverted the air suspension bellows, which allows those rear seats to recline 55 degrees.

“We’re teasing out the last millimeter of interior space,” he says. 

Cavernous back seat

I can attest first-hand that they’ve succeeded.  With the front seat adjusted to my 6-feet-2 height, I had a limolike six inches or so of rear-seat knee room in the Air.

In my Model S, my knees would have been brushing the rear seatback. 

Even more astonishing, the vastly more spacious Air is about a half-inch shorter and narrower than the Model S.

The Lucid website brags that the Air is nearly a foot shorter than a long-wheelbase Mercedes S-Class or BMW 7 series, yet has more interior space than either.

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

Spatial overkill?

The Lucid’s huge sumptuous rear passenger area is all well and good. But will it really matter to many potential buyers?

For me personally, I couldn't care less.  There’s far more likely to be a mountain bike and a dog in the back of my car than a person. A hatchback and fold-down rear seats are way more important to me than extra inches of knee room and a plush recliner.

On the rare occasion when I do carry rear-seat passengers, the merely adequate Model S-level space back there is plenty good enough for them—okay, call me heartless—on my typical short trips.

But Lucid is thinking beyond traditional American car-buyers. The massive back seat is partly aimed at the Chinese market and its “chauffeur culture,” where buyers of $100,000 cars are accustomed to being driven around. (Another China-centric feature: the rear doors open a full 90 degrees.)

Then there’s the Uber factor. A few years from now, Lucid believes, even high-end luxury-car owners will be Ubering their cars, autonomously or not. And a big, comfortable rear seat will be a selling point for Uber passengers.

Lucid Air prototype during high-speed test at Transportation Research Center, Ohio

Lucid Air prototype during high-speed test at Transportation Research Center, Ohio

Speed overkill?

The Lucid’s 235-mph top speed is another one of those cool-but-I-don’t-care features.  My Tesla’s top speed is supposedly 140 mph, yet I’ve never had it over 90, and see no reason to ever drive any car of mine faster than that.

Ludicrous-level acceleration is fun because it can be sampled (however briefly) on a whim, virtually any time, on virtually any road.

Ludicrous-level top speed? Just a theoretical number, something I would never experience, nor want to.

But again, Lucid has its eye on a foreign market. In Germany, land of the unlimited-speed Autobahns, drivers of $100,000 cars expect them to cruise effortlessly all day at 150 mph. A Tesla can’t do that, and it’s one reason Tesla sales in Germany have been mediocre. 

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Bigger door

One thing I do care about—a lot—is ease of driver entry and exit. And in this regard the Model S is mediocre at best. 

The culprit is the B-pillar, which separates the front and back doors. It’s about three or four inches too far forward, requiring tall guys like me to awkwardly scrunch around it to get into our pushed-back driver seats.

With its more efficient design, the Air has a wider driver’s door, with the B-pillar a bit farther back. Score one for Lucid.

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Luxurious interior

The Model S has been criticized for a rather spare interior that some consider unworthy of a $100,000 car.  

Lucid has jumped on this perceived Tesla flaw, and aims to make the Air feel like the inside of a private jet. It has clearly succeeded in this regard.

But once again, I don’t care that much. Like many Tesla owners, I had never before spent more than $35,000 on a new car. I don’t have the luxury mindset. I bought the Tesla for its electric acceleration, efficiency, style, and cutting-edge brand identity.  

Overstuffed seats and cooled upholders? Meh. The clean, comparatively Spartan interior of the Model S is fine with me.

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

Design, battery chemistry

As for styling, “There’s no legacy, we just do what makes sense,” says Jenkins. “It’s my job to stretch the consumer to the most advanced styling he can manage.”

I’d say he’s nailed it. To my eye the Air is sleek, attractive, and just futuristic enough.

But Lucid also has the lofty goal of being the industry leader in electric technology.

The Air’s batteries will use a new chemistry that can sustain DC fast charging with less long-term battery degradation, according to Rawlinson.

“It’s a real decathlete of a cell,” he says..

Jenkins insists there’s still plenty of progress left to make in electric motors, in terms of size, weight and cost, if not efficiency.

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

User interface

The Tesla’s huge central touch screen is one of the car’s most raved-about features. Sure, it looks awesome, but I’ve found it to be an ergonomic mixed bag.

To push any virtual button on the screen, the driver must look directly at the screen and guide his finger to the precise spot visually. No feel or muscle memory.

This means my eyes are off the road for at least a full second—perhaps 2 seconds if the occasionally numb screen doesn’t respond to the first touch.

And to change screens requires another second or two with eyes down. It’s seriously distracting—and potentially dangerous, if you ask me.

Lucid uses a combination of screens and tactile switches and buttons—a far better approach, in my opinion.

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

“Our goal was maximum capability with minimal effort,” says James Felkins, Lucid’s senior user experience designer.

The Lucid has three screens: one behind the steering wheel, one in the center of the dashboard, and a big one just above the center console.

Climate control and sound system, however, are controlled by buttons above the large central screen.

Properly integrated, physical buttons and screens can be far more ergonomic than a screen alone.

It looks to me like Felkins and his crew have aced this one, at least based on a static run-through of some various functions.  (A full long-term test drive will tell the tale, of course.)

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

A car too smart?

Elon Musk has warned of the potential dangers of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The Air forges into new AI territory that starts to verge on the  creepy, if not yet villainous.

Using facial recognition, the Air knows who you are when you get in. It will know what time you typically go to work (or the gym), and knows where the office (or the gym) is.

If you get in the car at the typical time, the car will immediately lay out the route to your presumed destination.

The Air’s voice-activated personal assistant takes route changes in stride.

When Felkins told her to amend the office route to pick up a latte at a nearby coffee shop, the car asked brightly, “Shall I call the boss to tell him you’ll be a few minutes late for your meeting?”

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

Lucid Air electric luxury sedan prototype [photo: David Noland]

No test drive

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to say about how the Air drives (It’s actually an automobile, remember?) No journalist or company outsider, as far as I know, has yet taken the wheel.

But I did manage a shotgun ride in an engineering prototype, for some reason painted in disguising camouflage.

The Lucid engineering test driver careened up and down the narrow streets around the Lucid building for a couple of minutes, and the car felt very Tesla-like in its smoothness, quiet, and acceleration. 

“Tesla-killer?”

At one point, a Lucid marketing exec asked me, “You’re a Model S owner. What would it take to make you switch over to an Air?”

That, of course, is the $64,000 question that will determine whether Lucid succeeds or fails as a company.

Lucid Air spotted driving through San Francisco

Lucid Air spotted driving through San Francisco

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

Lucid Air

What would it take to get me out of my Model S and into an Air?

With the understanding that I may not be a typical Model S owner, here’s my reply:  The bigger back seat won’t do it.  The private-jet luxury feel won’t do it. The fancy UI stuff won’t do it. The 235-mph top speed won’t do it.

Those are all fine things to have in a car, but they just don’t mean that much to me. In all those categories—room, luxury, speed, UI— the Model S meets or exceeds what I want out of a car.

For me personally, the Air has two big advantages over the Model S: the bigger driver’s door, and the improved control ergonomics. And I do love the sweeping panoramic windshield and glass roof. 

But on the other hand:  no hatchback for my bikes and dog. No cool CEO who also makes rockets. No company policy to change the world.

And here’s the killer: no Supercharging network.

Tesla Model S at Supercharger site in Ventura, CA, with just one slot open [photo: David Noland]

Tesla Model S at Supercharger site in Ventura, CA, with just one slot open [photo: David Noland]

Having used Tesla’s Supercharging network extensively, all over the country, I can testify first-hand how splendid it is. I can’t imagine doing my annual New York-to-California drive without it.

Contrast that with recent frustrated reports from owners of  Chevy Bolts—the only other long-range e-car currently on the market—who’ve tried to make cross-country journeys in their cars.

In my opinion, no company will ever seriously challenge Tesla without a comparable fast-charging network.

Considering that Tesla has a five-year, $2 billion-dollar head start, the odds of that happening any time soon are slim to none, it seems to me.

My advice to Lucid (and any other company currently working on Model S 2.0):  strike a deal with Tesla to use its Superchargers.

Tesla Supercharger network, North American coverage map, Feb 2017 [graphic: Isaac Bowser]

Tesla Supercharger network, North American coverage map, Feb 2017 [graphic: Isaac Bowser]

Musk has already said he’s willing to do such a deal. Sure, it would mean swallowing some corporate pride.

But by 2020, if Tesla’s own Model S 2.0 is nearing the showroom, the challenge of being a Tesla-killer will be even more daunting than it is now.

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