EV leader on Biden, DOE and Elon Musk

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 19, 2020

Peter Rawlinson, the CEO and chief technology officer of Lucid Motors Inc., once worked for Elon Musk. But he’s now aiming to take on Tesla Inc.’s dominance of the luxury electric vehicle market.

Rawlinson, who previously served as chief engineer at Tesla before joining Lucid in 2013, also says the incoming Biden administration could help his California-based startup by rolling out pro-EV policies.

“We’re looking for great things now with the new administration. We hope the administration will have that visionary policy in place to match the technology leadership of this country,” he said in a recent interview.

The CEO is gearing up to introduce the Lucid Air, a high-end electric sedan intended to compete with the Tesla Model S.

Rawlinson was born in the United Kingdom and attended Imperial College London before holding several roles in the U.K. auto industry, including principal engineer at Jaguar Cars and chief engineer at Lotus Cars.

The EV leader recently spoke with E&E News about the time he flew on a private jet with Musk to the Department of Energy, why he thinks analysts should stop obsessing over the cost of EV batteries and why he still drives a gas-powered car.

What is Lucid currently focusing on?

Let me tell you where we’re at as a company. We’ve developed what I believe is the most advanced EV technology in the world. And we’re putting that into production in a brand-new factory in Arizona next spring.

We’re going to make the best car in the world — the best EV in the world — in that factory. It’s going to be the first EV with over 500-mile range.

Do you see Lucid as a strong competitor to Tesla?

We’ve got more advanced technology than anyone else, including Tesla. I think Tesla’s not even close to where we are.

The world is in disbelief at the moment. But I just can’t wait to get in production, and the world will see that what we’ve got is real.

You previously worked at Tesla. Could you share a memorable anecdote from that time?

In a former life, 10 years ago, I was in California, despite my accent, and I was working for a then-little-known electric car company called Tesla. And I was chief engineer on Tesla’s Model S program.

One day in 2009, I got on an executive jet with my boss, Elon Musk, and two other executives, and the four of us visited the Department of Energy. I have a British passport, and it was murder getting in. Elon and the others got in straight through with a U.S. passport, but I got frisked by airport security.

So I was late to the meeting. And when I got there, I had to make an impromptu presentation to the representatives of the DOE. And we walked away with a $465 million loan from DOE’s [Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing] Loan Program.

What was the significance of that loan?

Let me tell you: That was the turning point for Tesla. Without that ATVM loan, Tesla would not exist today. It would not be a $400 billion juggernaut. That would never have happened because we used that money to get Model S into production. I know because I personally spent a lot of it. [Laughs]

Would Lucid like to receive an ATVM loan from the Biden Department of Energy?

We’d love an ATVM program to help us grow our factory in Arizona. It isn’t needed now to start our production. We’ve actually overcome a lot of our financing difficulties after we had investment from Saudi Arabia a couple of years ago. But it would help us double the size of the factory.

Right now, the factory is capable of making 34,000 units a year of the Lucid Air, a high-end luxury sedan. But we’d like to get the factory up to making 90,000 units a year, including the Gravity SUV. So it would be great if President Biden was really supportive of a program like that.

How do you view the federal EV tax credit?

Hats off to the government for persisting with that. I hope that the new Biden administration will continue to support that.

But although I totally welcome that, it is an artificial stimulus to what would otherwise be a free-market economy. And there’s got to be a stage where electric cars stand on their own feet — stand on their own wheels, as it were.

Of course, it’s great that the $7,500 incentive applies to us. And right now, it only applies to the first 200,000 units that a car manufacturer makes. Tesla has used up its quota. So technically, that puts us at a slight advantage to Tesla because anyone buying the Lucid would be able to claim that $7,500, whereas anyone buying a Tesla would no longer be able to.

Is the United States positioned to become a leader in EV manufacturing?

There’s a huge opportunity here for the United States. The U.S. is conspicuously the leader in EV tech and is going to be even more so when Lucid comes to the party.

But there’s also a paradox here: The U.S. is kind of languishing in third place on the international stage because China has got probably the most progressive centralized government EV policies in the world. Europe is probably in second place. So you have this disparity where the U.S. has got the tech, but it hasn’t got the centralized government policy to match.

How do you view other competitors besides Tesla?

There are a bunch of these EV startups around. But I mean, come on. They haven’t got any tech. Lucid’s the only one with real world-class tech.

I know this. But the problem is, many journalists haven’t got the technical expertise to know this. So we’re kind of talked about all in the same light.

Analysts expect EVs to reach price parity with gas-powered cars when the cost of EV batteries falls below $100 per kilowatt-hour. When do you foresee that happening?

We’re getting close to $100 per kilowatt-hour at cell level. I think it might happen in the next 15 months, 18 months, something like that. Of course, you’ve got to differentiate between cell level and battery pack level.

But let me tell you, a lot of those analysts are myopic. So many analysts and journalists say it’s battery cost that’s going to drive down the cost of electric cars, and it’s as simple as that. But that is such a goofy thing to say. It’s positively unintelligent. What really matters is not the cost of the battery, but the cost of getting an electric car to go a certain distance.

Do you mean the cost of the EV’s range?

Exactly. The challenge is, how much does it cost to get a 150-mile or 200-mile range? And the cost of the range equals battery cost, in dollars per kilowatt-hour, divided by the efficiency of the vehicle, in miles per kilowatt-hour.

That’s what’s important. Doubling the efficiency of an EV has more value than halving the battery cost.

Is the lack of charging infrastructure a big barrier to EV adoption?

Yes. We need more infrastructure for fast charging and overnight Level 2 charging. A lot of people haven’t got a garage to put their electric car in.

You know, I drive a gas-powered car because I live in an apartment in Silicon Valley where there’s nowhere to charge an EV. I’m the CEO of an electric car company, and I can’t use an EV because of my domestic arrangement. Isn’t that ridiculous? [Laughs]

California is seeking to phase out sales of gas-powered cars in the state by 2035. When do you expect the last internal-combustion engine vehicle to be sold in the U.S.?

It’s impossible for me to predict something in the future like that. I do think, though, there are cases where the internal-combustion engine will have its uses for a little while yet.

You know, the horse hasn’t become suddenly extinct. People still ride horses as a pleasurable experience. And I think people will continue to drive their classic gasoline-powered sports cars — Corvettes and Mustangs and all these things — in the future. But it will be for more of a pleasurable experience. It won’t be for the practicality of day-to-day movement.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.