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A chat with Derek Jenkins, Lucid Motors senior V.P. of design



A few years ago, we spoke with the folks at Lucid Motors — specifically CEO and CTO Peter Rawlinson and Senior Vice President of Design Derek Jenkins — as they worked to develop the Air electric luxury sedan and break ground on their Arizona factory. Since then, much has happened: Lucid has unveiled the production version of the Air, with an industry-beating 517 miles of projected driving range. Lucid is on the verge of going public through a SPAC deal. It has also weathered an ongoing pandemic and, in the midst of it, teased its next electric vehicle, the Gravity SUV. With so much underway, we had the opportunity to chat again with Derek Jenkins to talk about Lucid’s EVs and what’s happening now and in the future at the compay.

On the coronavirus pandemic

“I would say we’ve done pretty well as an organization. I’m pretty proud of how the company’s reacted and to be prepared, bring up the precautions as well as working methodology. But inevitably there was an impact because there’s change in workflow and, of course. there has been impact to our supply chain which has had delayed impact.

“On the design side, personally, I feel the impact is quite dramatic just because for me, designing and collaborating in person, being in the studio and being able to use the whole array of tools that we have at our disposal, I’ve really wished my team to be present in the office as much as possible. Truth be told that I was back in the office regularly in a May, June timeframe last year. I have been since, and then I ran a rotating skeleton crew to keep a creative vibe and creative growth going because, in those first months, I could already feel a bit of a detachment with the design team. And so it was important to get back in, and starting in that timeframe, we were already working heavily on Gravity SUV program and we’re pushing like crazy on it as we speak.”

On Project Gravity’s design

“Personally, as far as a personal vehicle, I actually probably lean more towards the Gravity than even the Air, believe it or not, in terms of my personal life. But the approach is very similar to Air. The Air is all about space optimization and utilizing the space to the best ability with the package. And the Gravity would be the same way. We really are optimizing that project around, first, the footprint of the car. So trying to keep the car at or around four, five meters in length and yet having class-above interior space, which is very much the approach we took with Air because we believe that it will be the long-term approach with electrification to optimize interior space with respect to exterior size.

“I think in terms of the type of crossover SUV, it’ll definitely lean more towards an urban/suburban on-road type of product. It will have a reasonable degree of off-road ability, but it’s not a full blown off-roader. And the reason for that is simple. We still need to stick to our efficiency principles — great aerodynamics and be able to optimize range — because range and efficiency are still one of our key metrics here at Lucid. And we believe strongly that that is the fundamental metric of what makes a great EV, is range and efficiency. We need to make sure that we take that same approach we took with Air, we take with Gravity. That will definitely be part of it.

“Beyond that, we showed the teaser model at our 9/9 launch event, and there’s images of that obviously out there. That was an early proportion study that we did. I would say there are things that will live onward, but [as] the project evolves, it’ll continue to tweak, and there will be definite new differences from what you see in those images. Mostly refinements, front and rear end, a few things I can’t get into. I would say that that is a directional concept that we teased, and that what will come will have some similarities, but there will be some differences as well. Sorry I’m being vague.”

On Gravity’s positioning

“We’ve been working really hard to figure out and determine the positioning for Gravity because — and this is something that’s near and dear to my heart — it’s always felt like if you chart the evolution of the SUV it’s really fascinating. Obviously in the ’80s and early ’90s, things were more truck- and off-road-based. And then throughout the ’90s we evolved into more on-road, car-based types of things.

“And now the segmentation of the SUV crossover is so splintered into all these little different mutations of the concept, which is obviously good for the consumer, right? Because they have a lot of different choices. But for us it’s really about what is the optimal architecture, optimal formula for the SUV crossover. I really feel like with the internal combustion choices, especially in the luxury segmentation, there’s still a lot of compromise. You either get something that’s really sporty and fast and dynamic but has no space or utility, or you get something with a lot of space but it’s lumbering and large and hard to get around town and park. And I see Gravity as being the ultimate mix of performance, awesome range and space and comfort and utility. And I don’t know a single vehicle that does all of those great, and so I’m excited about that.”

On efficiency

“I’ll say this, I feel the current state of EV awareness, it’s so much focus is, ‘It’s all about the battery or it’s all about the charging.’ And it’s really a million tiny things that ultimately stock up to make an EV able to be energy-efficient and range-exceptional. And even with Air, even as we speak, we’re eking out every little advantage we can get from software or some other mechanical tweak to get that little bit further. And I think that you can expect an exceptional level of range. Where it is exactly? I think we still need to determine that. Obviously we have our estimations and we have our goals.

“And the big pressure for me is, of course, aerodynamics. Which is, not going to lie, that the Air is easy by comparison to doing an SUV. Because with the Air we have the advantage of the car [being] relatively low. We made it narrower than other cars in the segment. And then the rest of it was just keeping the car super clean, the elimination of traditional grille and features like that on the front of the car and just treating it like an aircraft, really.

“With an SUV, I want it to sit a little more proud. I want it to be a little more muscular looking and a little bit faster in some areas, boxier other areas. And all of those things have an aerodynamic tradeoff. It becomes the art of balancing the, let’s say, the SUV aesthetic presence with aerodynamic efficiency. To me that is the ultimate artistic challenge. I think we’ll find that balance, and you can expect range that, I wouldn’t say is directly on par with Air, but proportionately given the nature of the product.”

On the Gravity name

“This is a really fascinating story because all the Lucid naming strategy is built around these elements and really elemental type of naming. We have built up a whole range. We have names stashed away. And Gravity came from one of our employees’ daughters. She’s like 10, 11 years old, and she said, ‘Dad, wouldn’t it be great if the SUV was called Gravity?’ He came to me with that, and it was one of those things I’m like, ‘That’s awesome. That’s perfect.’

“The reason it’s perfect is because I like names that feel huge, that feel big or they’re boundless. Air is just boundless yet so simple. And Gravity was on the other end of the spectrum, because when I think of an SUV, I’m not suggesting that it’s super, super heavy, but I did suggest that it’s got a mass to it and a presence and it’s substantial. And Gravity also suggests something of importance. And it just felt right to me, and it felt like a worthy followup to Air, quite honestly. And so I give our employees’ daughter full credit.

“It’s funny because early on when we renamed the company from Atieva — which was our original company’s name — to Lucid, that was this big, long process. And then once we established that we hadn’t named the car yet, and we have a million names, and the easy way out is just give a numerical abbreviation nomenclature. That’s like phoning it in, right?

“And I just felt like, ‘Damn it, we’re better than that. It deserves a name that reflects its character.’ The problem there is all good names are trademarked, and it becomes a really difficult process. We had to get our heads outside of the predictable automotive-sounding terms, and we’ve been fortunate because that’s yielded a lot of cool names. I think we have names for our next three or four products already planned.”

On what’s next

“We have a 10-year roadmap, and we’ve talked about it on a high level here and there. There’s the obvious thing, there will be ongoing improvements and derivatives of Air. And those will include things like we’re continuing to move forward on our rear seat Executive Package. We see that as very important for the Chinese and Asian markets because they have more of that chauffeur type of consumer. That will include things like our rear seating entertainment package and so on. We have an ongoing accessory program that we’re building up for Air. 

“And then of course we have Gravity. Gravity will have multiple variants. The Gravity is built on the Air architecture, but it’s an evolution of the architecture that’s more suitable towards the SUV. And naturally that opens up opportunities for perhaps not just one product on that evolution of that platform. I think there’s an opportunity there that they’re still exploring. And then beyond that, the next step is our second fully new platform, which will most likely be in the direction of a smaller product or a smaller family of products moving slightly downmarket.” 

On the Atieva Edna, and the possibility of a Lucid van

I’m a massive fan of vans. I have a Volkswagen Eurovan, actually. In fact, I’ve owned three, as well as the Vanagon. I’m a hardcore van fan, as well. I follow VanLife and Sprinters and all of that very closely. That one is one that, in my personal view, I would like that very much. In the view of Lucid as a brand and the priority as a product change, it’s hard for me to see that as being something we would pursue in our immediate strategy, to be honest. But never say never.”

On the possibility of commercial vehicles

“I think that with the immediate future, our focus is starting as a luxury brand, starting with a world-class luxury sport sedan and a world-class luxury sport SUV crossover. We want to establish that luxury position, and then naturally the next step is to bring in a more affordable set of products and move downmarket. Not all the way downmarket but more of, let’s say, a mid-level premium position.

“In terms of commercial applications and this type of platform, I think we’re very keen, and obviously we see a lot of activity in that area. I think our immediate strategy there is to look at how we can put our technologies to work and find partners to work in those areas. We look at our battery tech, our motoring further tech, our charging technologies. These are all ideally suited for both last mile or urban commercial applications. We’re open to those types of partnerships.”

On the SPAC merger

“I’m probably not the best person to get any real detail there, I would defer to Peter [Rawlinson] on that. But obviously it’s been stated that they have the idea [that the] merger is meant to take place in the second half of the year. And we’re obviously looking forward to it, that that capital raise will have a dramatic impact for us to accelerate our efforts. We’re thrilled about our partners, and so far it’s been an amazing boost for the company.” 

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