INTERVIEW: Lucid Air drives the electric vehicle transformation to the next level

Illustration by Luis Grañena
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Updated 13 September 2020

INTERVIEW: Lucid Air drives the electric vehicle transformation to the next level

  • Peter Rawlinson, CEO of the Saudi-backed motor manufacturer, believes the “writing is on the wall” for petrol engines as he launches “the best car in the world”
  • It is aiming unashamedly at the luxury saloon segment, dominated by German manufacturers such as BMW and Mercedes

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” said Peter Rawlinson, CEO of Lucid Motors. Given that he was talking about groundbreaking electric vehicle (EV) technology after launching what he called “the best car in the world,” that was quite a claim.

Rawlinson, who learned the car design business at UK sports car legend Lotus before going on to work on the design of the Tesla S, believes that the Lucid Air — launched last week to much online fanfare — is not just a game changer for the motor business, but for the world.

“We’ve got the best car in the world, but I’m more excited to know that we have technology that can cascade down to more affordable models for the man in the street. That’s what is going to change the world, not just selling more luxury cars,” he told Arab News.

What makes it all the more fascinating is that this planet-changing technology has been enabled by Saudi Arabia, known for the past century as the global hub of the conventional hydrocarbon industry, but which stands to lose out if, or when, gas-guzzling giants give way to clean electric vehicles.

The Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) owns a majority stake in Lucid, having invested more than $1 billion into the project in 2018. “They put their faith in us, that’s why we’re here today thriving,” Rawlinson said.

He believes the launch of the Air could be the moment the EV market really takes off. The car, which could be available in the Middle East as early as next year following its planned debut in the US next spring, boasts better performance, longer range and more comfortable design than virtually any other currently in the EV market.

It is aiming unashamedly at the luxury saloon segment, dominated by German manufacturers such as BMW and Mercedes, and is priced around $90,000 to $170,000 per car, depending on model and specification. Reductions for that price are planned after the first year of production.

It will also, inevitably, come up against Tesla, the undoubted leader in the EV production space, and the most valuable car company in the world, but Rawlinson is not daunted by that prospect.

“The Tesla Model S is beautifully designed and engineered, and it has undoubtedly been disruptive, but it is not aimed at the luxury market. The Model S is a good first effort, but we felt we could take it to another level,” he said.


BIO

BORN: South Wales, UK.

EDUCATION: Bachelor of Science (engineering) Imperial College, London.

CAREER

  • Principal engineer, Jaguar Cars.
  • Chief engineer, Lotus Cars.
  • Head of vehicle engineering, Corus Automotive.
  • Chief engineer, Model S, Tesla.
  • CEO, Lucid Motors.

“There’s so much more to come. There might be some disbelief out there; people might think I’m crazy, but I am the guy who designed the Model S,” he added.

Tesla is a rival, but he does not see it as a case of “either/or” in the EV market. There is plenty of room for the two manufacturers, especially with Lucid’s chosen segment being the luxury end.

“We are overtly targeting the grand European marques that are mostly gasoline powered. That is a $100 billion market, and if we just scratch the surface of it and don’t steal a single customer from Tesla, we can thrive,” he said.

He does not think the existing gasoline-dominated industry is doing very well with its efforts in the EV space, and that manufacturers like Porsche and Audi have not realized the range and performance efficiencies he has achieved with the Air.

The key for the Lucid Air, he said, was that he was able to design an EV car from scratch, whereas all other designs have been developed with existing petrol-driven conventions in mind. Lucid has miniaturized EVs to an extent not seen before in the industry, from battery size through to the power train and in-car technology.

“Any fool can just stuff a bigger battery in and take up a load of space. It’s like solving a 3D puzzle, and miniaturization changes the rules of the puzzle. We can make the engine so tiny, and the electronics so tiny, that there is a lot more room for the passengers,” Rawlinson said.

He compares the Air to the “Tardis” time-machine familiar to fans of the British TV series “Doctor Who” — small on the outside but amazingly spacious on the inside.

Miniaturization opens another horizon too. A more efficient battery with greater range can give much higher performance levels. Lucid’s Atieva battery powers the Formula E vehicles that have been showcased at Saudi Arabian motorsports events. But it can also be the key to mass-market take-up of EV cars.

“The advantages are compactness, efficiency and the fact they are mass-producible. If we can reduce the inherent cost of transport, that’s where it gets really exciting. Who will make the $30,000 car? It might not be us, but we can license our technology to the likes of Honda or Toyota,” Rawlinson said.

If it all goes to plan, it could be the next step along the road to the “energy transformation” much talked about by environmentalists and economists, where fossil fuels are gradually but inevitably replaced by EV as the world’s main form of transportation.

The role of Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, within this transformation might appear counter-intuitive. The PIF injected the resources into Lucid to bring the Air project to fruition, and could be asked for more funds to get to the next big initiative — an SUV planned for 2023 — into production. “On the surface it’s a paradox, but when you delve a little closer it’s clear. The Kingdom has Vision 2030, and Saudi Arabia and the PIF are an intelligent bunch. They know the oil is going to run out one day, but the sunshine is going to be there a lot longer than that. I think they recognize that the writing is on the wall for gasoline engines,” Rawlinson said. “They’re looking well into the future to secure it for generations to come. I think the whole world benefits, because we all breath the same air. Climate change is real,” he added.

Rawlinson believes that his energy storage systems could have potentially game-changing consequences for the Kingdom’s energy industry, especially in solar sources. 

“That would be awesome for Saudi Arabia,” he said. “They have enough sunshine and they should really be harvesting it,” he said, noting that efficient battery power has applications across many sectors of industry such as agriculture, mining, heavy equipment power and drones.

The Kingdom wants industrial, hi-tech development as part of the Vision 2030 strategy, both to increase local employment and to enhance its own technology, and Rawlinson is already committed to helping out by basing some of its production capacity in Saudi Arabia.

“We’d love to do that, to help Saudi Arabia with the genesis of a motor industry there in the Kingdom. To birth its motor industry in pure electric might seem a paradox, but that’s how future-looking they are,” he said. 

He is also beginning to think about the aviation business, regarded by many energy experts as the ultimate prize for electrification, but which presents big problems on battery efficiency and range factors. Nobody has yet come up with a truly viable alternative to jet fuel for long-haul air travel.

“I’d love to get into electric aircraft. I hardly dare to say it, because it sounds like I’m completely nuts, but I think in the next 10 years you’re going to have an explosion in development of relatively short-range electric aircraft. We’ve got all the battery technology and integrated power-train solutions for electric aircraft,” he said.

That is all in the not-so-distant future, and for the moment Rawlinson is focusing on completing the Arizona production facility and getting Air cars on sale, first in the US next spring, then in Europe and the Middle East later in the year, or possibly early in 2022. Entry into the Chinese market — “the big one” — will come last.

“Getting the first car into production is very significant. If we fail at that, it would not be good, so I’m aware of the enormity of the task and treat it with the appropriate degree of humility. But this is very special. We can redefine what is possible for electric vehicles and the technology is groundbreaking. No-one else is even close,” he said.


INTERVIEW: Hummingbird Technologies and Saudi Arabia team up on food security

Updated 25 October 2020

INTERVIEW: Hummingbird Technologies and Saudi Arabia team up on food security

  • UK agri-tech entrepreneur explains how SALIC has invested in sustainable farming

Will Wells, CEO of Hummingbird Technologies, is scrutinizing our food, right down to the lettuce on a supermarket shelf.

“Every time somebody buys lettuce in Europe, the chances are that Hummingbird has analyzed that lettuce,” he told Arab News. Since last year, the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company (SALIC) has probably had a good look at it too.

Last year SALIC — owned by the Public Investment Fund with a mandate to optimize investment in food and farming in the Kingdom and around the world — became a big investor in Hummingbird with a £7 million ($9.1 million) financial injection into Wells’ company.

It was an investment with big implications for agri-tech — the fast-growing sector that applies advanced digital technology to farming and food production — but also for global food security and Saudi Arabia’s plans to become more self-sufficient in sustainable foodstuffs.

Hummingbird, which Wells described as “my baby” after he set it up four years ago, develops the software used by drones and satellites to produce high-resolution maps that farmers can use to forecast crop stress, identify diseases, pests and weeds, and optimize food yields.

“If you’re an agricultural company and you say to me ‘I want you to show me every single soya bean in Brazil, or every single sugarcane plant in India,’ we could do it in a millisecond,” he said.

“Think of us like an MRI scan for plants. We use satellite data, robots, and drones to help farmers see problems in their crops. The result is immunotherapy, not chemotherapy. By analyzing millions and billions of pixels of crops from space, we can help people use fewer chemicals, improve supply, and monitor the entire digital food supply chain,” Wells said.

With a team of 65 people — mainly scientists — in his London office, Wells uses artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to analyze billions of pixels to prevent such problems. The technology he has developed can also assist in making food production more sustainable by measuring and evaluating agricultural techniques that minimize carbon-intensive practices.

“We can make the difference between sustainable and unsustainable agriculture. Technology like this can connect the dots,” Wells said.

“I want to emphasize the sheer quantity of software and hardware solutions in agri-food — weather stations, soil sensors, driverless tractors, robotic harvesting, spot-spraying weed devices. Hummingbird’s role — rather like the MRI scan — is to talk to all of that technology. We link up and integrate with everything else on the ground,” he added.

Hummingbird grew out of work done by scientists at London’s Imperial College and other technology organizations, and was backed by some prestigious investors in early-stage funding, including the European Space Agency and James Dyson, the British inventor and entrepreneur.

It has operations and clients across the world, from Latin and North America, throughout Europe and Russia, and down to Australia.

The Saudi connection came when SALIC opted to use Hummingbird technology for agricultural projects at farming land it owns and manages outside the Kingdom, including big investments in the Ukraine and Australia.


BIO

BORN: 1983, London.

EDUCATION: MA, Edinburgh University.

CAREER

  • Investment analyst, Highclere International Investment.
  • Founder and CEO, Hummingbird Technologies.

“SALIC was a customer first, but they liked the technology so much they decided to back it,” Wells said. SALIC’s £7 million participation in the last round of financing makes it a major investor in a start-up that is valued at more than £20 million.

But Wells has much bigger ambitions. “Can an AI business for agriculture hit the same unicorn status, like those in health technology and fintech, that we’ve seen in recent years? The potential size of the market we’re going after is absolutely enormous.

“We’re trying to disrupt a multibillion-dollar chemical market, and we’re trying to unlock a multitrillion-dollar carbon market. There are so many ways AI and data science can improve food and farming,” he said.

“We are doubling and tripling every year, and expanding fast. We analyze millions of hectares of farming land every month, and we see billions of dollars of efficiency in each market we look at. You don’t have to be a silver bullet to hit ‘unicorn’ status in those conditions. People who have expertise in AI and crops make up quite a small list,” Wells added.

SALIC has been investing for some time in agricultural assets outside the Kingdom. Two years ago, it made the biggest in a series of investments in the Ukraine’s abundant farming lands with the purchase of Mriya, one of the country’s largest farming landowners in the rich grain and vegetable producing areas in the west of the country, combining it with an agricultural asset purchased earlier.

Last month, SALIC imported and sold its first batch of grain from Ukraine, unloading 60,000 tons of wheat in Jeddah, as part of the Kingdom’s strategy to support foreign investments in agriculture and help to ensure food security in Saudi Arabia.

In 2019, SALIC bought more than 200,000 hectares of land in Western Australia, including its first foreign investment in sheep-raising land, in one of Australia’s largest-ever farming land deals. 

Hummingbird technology can be used at the new acquisitions to enhance productivity and eliminate disease. SALIC also has ambitions in Canada and India.

But Wells also sees “immense” opportunities within the Kingdom itself. Food security has always been a national objective, and is one of the pillars of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify away from oil dependence.

Earlier this year, the National Grain Company was set up, a partnership between SALIC and the National Shipping Company to oversee trade, handling and storage of grains in the Kingdom.

“We are looking to expand and have a local agricultural presence. Saudi Arabia wants to grow more fruit and vegetables in the country, and to do so locally and sustainably. We have expertise in producing foodstuffs efficiently, and that expertise can be put to good use there,” he said.

Wells said that the Vision 2030 strategy “speaks to the needs of consumers everywhere.” He added: “Ordinary people and consumers everywhere, not just in Saudi Arabia, are increasingly asking where their food is coming from, and this is a major factor for a company like ours. We are an enabler of self-sufficiency.”

The Hummingbird business also fits in perfectly with the emphasis on high-technology and the knowledge economy that is central to the Vision strategy, nowhere more so than in the NEOM megacity planned in the Kingdom’s north west.

There are more immediate applications too. Wells is working on an algorithm for date-palm production across the Middle East region that he believes has great potential. “But ultimately we can analyze any plant from space, whether it’s in the middle of the desert or in a field in Brazil, and therefore we’re actively seeking local partners, especially university professors who specialize in plant pathology,” he said.

Hummingbird can also be critical to the Kingdom’s plans to reduce its carbon footprint as part of the Circular Carbon Economy strategy to tackle climate change.

“What we’re able to do from space is measure activities within food and farming that sequester carbon. To put it plainly, if a farmer or a farming business uses the Hummingbird map, and as a result of that uses less nitrogen as fertilizer, or sprays fewer chemicals, they have a lower carbon footprint, or potentially even a positive carbon outcome,” Wells said.

“By measuring things like biodiversity and soil health from space, we are able to distinguish between a farm that is sustainable, and a farm that’s not. At the heart of it is a ‘green’ outcome,” he added.

At some stage, Hummingbird will come back to the investor table for more funds. “We’re a high-growth start-up and in due course we will be seeking new investment. It is part of our journey and we have many more market opportunities too,” he said.

“Some people might call it a ‘land grab’, but we’re expanding into geographies where there are millions of hectares of farmland that have not yet been analyzed like this. It’s still very much a frontier market,” he said.

The link-up with SALIC could just be the connection that takes Hummingbird along the way to being an Arabian unicorn, but there is a broader ambition beyond the financial — to change the way the global food and agriculture business is seen.

“Food and farming has been demonized as a cause of climate change by many people. But there is a way to produce food efficiently and sustainably. It’s our job to sit right in the middle of that. 

“The aim is to take a sector that has been blamed for climate change, and make it carbon positive. That is the goal here,” Wells said.