Lucid Motors Design Chief on Competing With Tesla and Why He Joined an EV Start-Up: ‘It Was a Huge Risk'

Source: Lucid Motors

When the Lucid Air luxury sedan EV hits the market in the second half of 2021, it's expected to break records.

One of those records would be Lucid Air's expected ability to drive up to 517 miles on a single charge, which would top any other electric production vehicle. Lucid has also promised that the Lucid Air will be the world's most aerodynamic production car, which reduces drag and helps with energy efficiency.

Lucid touts the company's "next generation technology" as the future industry standard for electric vehicles.

The person behind the design for the Lucid Air and the other vehicles the company plans to release over the next few years, including the Gravity SUV, is Lucid's vice president of design, Derek Jenkins. Jenkins, 51, leads the team responsible for making Lucid's cars as aerodynamic as possible, while developing a distinct luxury aesthetic for the Lucid brand, among other things.

Jenkins joined the start-up in 2015 (when it was called Atieva) after spending over two decades designing cars for traditional brands like Audi, Volkswagen and Mazda. He'd previously served as the director of design for Mazda North America, where he designed the Mazda MX-5 Miata that won World Car of the Year in 2016.

Exterior of the Lucid Air sedan, which debuted Sept. 9, 2020 as the company's first production vehicle.
Exterior of the Lucid Air sedan, which debuted Sept. 9, 2020 as the company's first production vehicle.

Lucid, founded in 2007, was originally focused on developing electric car battery technology to supply to other manufacturers — including powering cars in the Formula E electric racing series — before changing course to manufacture its own vehicles. The company recruited a team of veteran engineers and designers including Jenkins, as well as CEO Peter Rawlinson, who joined in 2013 after previously serving as the chief engineer at Tesla, where he was the lead engineer behind the Model S.

In February, Lucid announced a merger with Churchill Capital IV that will take the California-based electric automaker public, valuing Lucid at $24 billion while bringing in over $4 billion that the start-up can use to fuel expansion, including completing its new factory in Arizona

The deal has so far been a drag on Churchill Capital's stock price, with some on Wall Street concerned that it's a harbinger of a SPAC bubble, especially with Lucid still yet to deliver even a single car. But a Lucid spokesperson told CNBC Make It that the deal is "the best option" to help the company reach its goal of bringing its electric cars to the market and that it "cannot control what the stock market or Lucid stock is going to do over the short term," so the company focused on executing its vision.

The capital paves the way for Lucid to take its next steps toward competing with rivals like Tesla in the increasingly crowded market for electric cars.

Jenkins recently spoke to CNBC Make It about Lucid's place in the competitive electric car space, why he left traditional automakers to join an electric start-up, and how he fell in love with cars in the first place.

CNBC Make It: With a growing list of rival electric car start-ups like Tesla (as well as Rivian, Fisker, Nio, to name a few), along with traditional automakers transitioning into electric vehicles, how does Lucid stand apart?

Derek Jenkins: The whole point is to come into that space and create electric luxury. But ultimately, I think it is a technology-driven play.

Interior of the Lucid Air sedan.
Interior of the Lucid Air sedan.

The race-proven [battery] technology is derived from our experience in Formula E racing. We have designed and built all of the batteries that go into the last three seasons of Formula E race vehicles, so we have thousands and thousands of hours of track time documented and a flawless reliability track record.

All of that technology has been poured directly into Lucid Air.

We always take the position that we have to run faster than others when it comes to the technology, whether that's performance, range, efficiency.

As long as you're staying on the forefront there, that will enable great design, and that will continue to make you the desired brand when it comes to electric technology. That's our big win.

Peter [Rawlinson, Lucid's CEO] had the vision of really compact electric drivetrain components and this idea of creating a lot more space on the inside of the car, keeping the outside of the car more compact. That led to the Lucid aesthetic, which is really clean, seamless, very aircraft-like, aerodynamic influences, but still elegant and well designed.

A design sketch of the Lucid Air from the team led by vice president of design Derek Jenkins.
Source: Lucid Motors
A design sketch of the Lucid Air from the team led by vice president of design Derek Jenkins.

What inspired you to join an electric car start-up after over 20 years of working for traditional automakers?

I saw the success of Tesla in the early days and was really blown away, because we all had been under the impression that nobody starts a new company [in the auto industry]. That's impossible.

Watching that success firsthand — and I had close friends that were working there in really significant positions, so I understood from them what it took — I was really inspired by that. 

I felt that the industry is changing and I want to work for a company that will be on the forefront of that.

Whenever there's an opportunity for big change, that's when the great things happen. I was feeling like, "We're in that time. How do I get an opportunity to be part of that big change?" Because, as a designer, that's the ultimate satisfaction.

Why Lucid?

I met Peter Rawlinson and got to understand what makes him tick and his view on  the relationship between design, technology and engineering.

We completely synched up on that philosophy of being less about pure styling and more about the advancement of technology and innovation and great aesthetics, design and execution.

Did it feel like you were taking a major risk with your career?

It was a huge risk at the time. The company was only a little bit under 100 people when I joined. [Lucid now employs nearly 2,000 people.] I had colleagues that were like, "Are you crazy? What are you doing?" Just like I had said to my Tesla friends, when they set out on that mission.

My wife was skeptical of my desire to step away from the safe job path of the traditional auto industry to this unproven start-up. We spent two weeks agonizing over the decision and in the end we took the riskier path. From that point on she has been our biggest supporter." [Jenkins declined to disclose any change in salary.]

We still have a long path ahead of us. But I'm so glad I took that leap of faith because it's been such an incredible journey to get to this point. 

You've got to take a risk to get this kind of reward and experience. I would have been pretty unsatisfied if I had just stayed with my traditional options at the time. And if I look at the way the industry has changed, even since I've been here, it's just proof that my head was in the right place. I just had to go out and find a way to do it. 

At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to design cars? 

I grew up in Orange County in the '80s. There's always been a really strong car culture down there. By the time I was a teenager, I was working on cars a lot with my dad and just kind of building stuff. 

Ultimately, it was being immersed in that rich environment of surfing, skating, cars and a lot of industrious businesses in Newport Beach, where they build boats, concept cars, they build aerospace stuff and surfboards.

I would make remote-control cars and planes. I made four or five surfboards, which didn't work well. That is absolutely an art in its own right. Nevertheless, to learn it was valuable because it is very much along the lines of automotive sculpting, if you think about surface development, and how cars are really created.

I started restoring motorcycles and mini bikes and bicycles and I eventually [restored] three or four cars as a teenager. 

I bought my first car when I was 15 with money from repairing surfboards. It was a VW Thing. I just liked it because it was so ridiculously basic. It was barely a car. And, I basically sanded it down and repainted it.

Source: Derek Jenkins
A teenaged Derek Jenkins poses with his Volkswagen 181, also known as a "Thing".

I thought I wanted to be a mechanical engineer or automotive engineer. I didn't even know what car design really was. 

I found out about Art Center through one of my teachers who knew I was into cars. Once I visited the school, I was like, "OK, this is definitely what I'm going to do."

I just started working towards that — learning to draw better, making models and trying to excel in what it took to get into the school. That was how it started.

What was the first car you remember seeing in your youth that made you think about the actual design of cars?

There's two cars in particular, and they're totally different from one another.

The first one was the first generation 928 Porsche. I can recall seeing that car for the first time with my father; I must have been 7 or 8. That just looked like a UFO to me, especially in contrast to the boxy aesthetic of the '70s.

The other car that sticks with me is the original Lotus Esprit S1, the James Bond car. I was fascinated by that car. Both of those cars continue to be in my top 10 favorite vehicles of all time.

National Motor Museum | Heritage Images | Getty Images

What are your ultimate goals for Lucid over the next decade?

In the near term, obviously, it's getting Lucid Air on the road and hopefully it gets acknowledged as being an absolute industry leader in technology and it also helps establish this company as a well-known luxury brand in that space.

That will enable us to follow on with our SUV program, the Gravity, and beyond that our second platform, which is most likely going to be a smaller and slightly more affordable set of vehicles.

A prototype version of Lucid Motors' planned Gravity SUV.
Source: Lucid Motors
A prototype version of Lucid Motors' planned Gravity SUV.

Long term, all of this is about advancing sustainability in mobility and in energy. That is the future and we think Lucid can be at the forefront of it. The whole point is [for] electric cars to be the majority of vehicles on the road.

Does Lucid becoming a public company change anything for you as a designer? 

I don't think so. What this will enable is an infusion of capital to help accelerate certain programs within the company, and not develop necessarily single vehicles in sequence, but maybe multiple programs in parallel. So I certainly welcome that because we want to grow quickly and effectively. 

These interviews took place in February and March and have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to note that the first Lucid Air sedans will hit the market in the second half of 2021.

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