Lucid invents new efficiencies to produce an EV with 520 mile range and 20 minute recharging, surpassing Tesla
Lucid is a new entry in the EV market (deliveries of the Air began in January), but the company – founded in 2007 – has some of the leading engineers on powertrain efficiency. The current CEO, Peter Rawlinson, headed up development of powertrains for the Tesla S, before he jumped off the Tesla ship and tried to best Tesla on his own. The Air is getting glowing reviews (e.g., Ulrich, Lawrence. 2022. Lucid Air: a fresh face with 500 miles to a charge and horsepower to spare. New York Times 7 Feb 2022).
Here’s why the Lucid is getting rave reviews: the complete power train for the most basic Air weighs only 163 pounds, and fits in an airline carry-on bag (including motor, transmission, and inverter). It has triple the power density of the best Tesla equivalent. It is a staggering improvement over an internal combustion engine (~ 800 pounds for a hood-filling monster). Tesla is now promising to produce a car with a 600 mile range, so the competition is heating up. Efficiency can be expressed in miles per kilowatt-hour or kwh (common in US; higher is better), or kwh per mile (often done in Europe; lower is better). But what most people care about is range.
Why is efficiency a big deal? The brute force approach to extending range, taken by many legacy manufacturers (e.g., Ford, GM) especially for the higher price points, is to simply include a bigger battery. But batteries are heavy, so relying on bigger batteries to add range adds a lot of weight, which reduces both acceleration and range, and for most trips is simply consuming electricity to haul around unneeded weight. With a monster battery, efficiency can drop from 5 miles per kwh to around 3. Instead, Lucid reduced the vehicle weight, encased it in a superlatively aerodynamic shell, and produced a vehicle that is extremely efficient (nearly 5 miles per kwh despite a 118 kwh battery), has unsurpassed range (520 miles), AND accelerates faster than a Tesla S (2.5 sec for 0-60 mph in the Air compared to 3.1 sec for the “ordinary” Tesla S. The Tesla S Plaid beats both: 2.0 sec).
Furthermore, now that the world knows how to increase efficiency in this way, the results will eventually become available at lower price points, as there is nothing intrinsically expensive about a 163 pound powertrain, though the development costs will no doubt need to be amortized by Lucid’s luxury-priced sales ($97K – $167K).
The next big efficiency breakthrough is likely to be in increasing the power density of the batteries themselves. VW has announced that they will be introducing solid state lithium ion batteries in the 2023 model year. Preliminary tests of solid state batteries suggest that their weight can be decreased by at least 30%, though VW has not promised such a big improvement in their 2023 models. Solid state batteries not only have lower weight (by eliminating electrolyte), but are less prone to fires because the “separator” between the sides of each cell can be made from puncture-resistant ceramic rather than the semi-permeable plastic membrane which is sometimes punctured by “dendrite” crystals growing through the separator, shorting the cell and causing a runaway temperature spike or fire.
Dendrites grow during rapid charging, but here too Lucid engineering has made progress, allowing charging at the extraordinary 350 kw level, thereby gaining the Air 300 miles of range in a mere 20 minutes (less than it takes to grab a sandwich and a bathroom break while your car charges in the Walmart parking lot). Note that most extant fast chargers do not support such a rapid charge (the maximum in Durango is 125 kw), but the newer and better ones do (many in Walmart parking lots), and vast numbers of new fast chargers will be appearing in the next few years due to Biden’s infrastructure initiative and many other infrastructure initiatives by electric utilities and car manufacturers.
Some of the Lucid Air’s efficiency is attributable to a highly aerodynamic shell. The legacy producers seem to believe that buyers would prefer traditional shapes to aerodynamic ones. For example, the Ford F-150 Lightning retains the blunt proboscis of the F-150 ICE (gas engine) truck, even though there is no longer any need and the huge hood blocks the driver’s view. Ditto for the GM Hummer. The cost of this inefficiency really comes into play at highway speeds, because air resistance increases at a higher mathematical power than velocity. Lucid points out that at 70 mph, the Air retains a range of > 500 miles, whereas the next best range (among vehicles tested at that speed) is the Tesla 3, with a range of 310 miles. An untested model, the Mercedes Benz EQS ($97K – $135K) is also very aerodynamic and likely has a range of around 340 miles at 70 mph.
So, what’s the fuss about the Lucid Air when most of us will never buy an EV in that price range? As mentioned above, the Air’s technological improvements will eventually filter down to those of us in the hoi polloi. More importantly, greater efficiency means a reduced need for grid-generated power. Renewably generated power is thought to be “green” and “clean”, but it is not free of social and environmental costs. In densely populated New England, for example, aesthetic concerns are blocking offshore windmills and onshore transmission lines that are needed to bring renewable energy into the grid. Hydropower destroys fisheries and floods wildlife habitat. Rooftop solar is a win-win for renewables, but electric utilities do not like it (if priced to their liking, it is not cost-effective for homeowners), and many homeowners prefer tree-shaded roofs. Ground-mounted solar takes up land for residential amenities, wildlife habitat, or agriculture – making food slightly more expensive. Nuclear is the most expensive option, and the one most prone to insoluble waste and weapon proliferation conflicts. The land area needed in the US for 100% non-nuclear renewable grid power is vast (several states worth) and will no doubt produce major political strife and interminable siting battles in the decades to come. EV efficiency is one of the easiest ways to prevent these social and environmental conflicts.