Saturday 25th February 2017
Ambitious start-up Faraday Future wants to take over the electric car market with its FF 91 electric saloon. We take a look at its chances of being the next Tesla
Promising 1050bhp, a range of 378 miles and 0-62mph in 2.39sec, the $200,000 (roughly £160k) Faraday Future FF 91 electric saloon is not short of ambition.
In fact, Faraday is a car company that has been around for only three years yet is now telling the world it will match Tesla at its own game in 2018, even though its factory exists as only an architect’s model and a dusty lot in the Nevada desert.
If this story of electrically charged motoring ambition sounds familiar, then it is. Tesla arrived on the scene boasting of lofty goals yet suffered frequent delays and side-stepped deadlines on its way to glory. Tesla, of course, has confounded many critics, achieved a technology breakthrough and now sells the most popular luxury saloon in the US, having also added the Model X SUV and teed up a more affordable model for 2017/18.
So should we be open-minded and give Faraday a chance to roll out its new car in 2018? Or should we dismiss it all as a pipe dream?
Faraday’s technical director, Nick Sampson, is a Briton and former Lotus engineer who worked on the Elise Mk2, still-born M250 and Tesla Model S. He is obviously convinced the firm will succeed and answered our questions by email from California after the FF 91 was launched in January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
“To date, Faraday has spent hundreds of millions of dollars of its own money developing its first production vehicle and planning for future manufacturing facilities,” he says. “We have previously stated that the start of production for FF 91 will occur within 2018 and we stand by this timeline.”
Sampson and his team are working behind the scenes on an all-new alloy ‘skateboard’ chassis built to house multiple modules of lithium ion, floor-mounted batteries and dubbed VPA (Vehicle Platform Architecture).
“The design and engineering of FF’s VPA, chassis and body structure has all been done in-house by our wide talent pool that spans automotive, technology and aerospace industries,” he says.
The engineering may sound familiar because Tesla has a similar platform design, and the cutaway prototype of Faraday’s chassis looks comparable with Tesla’s.
“Our VPA is designed in-house and is a flexible powertrain system featuring a monocoque vehicle structure in which the chassis and body are single form, providing a measurable increase in overall vehicle rigidity, safety and handling,” says Sampson.
The skateboard platform is fashioned from aluminium, as is the bulk of the outer skin. Other panels are steel and plastic composites, and welding, bonding and fasteners are used in the construction.
The chassis, running gear and body will be assembled in-house by Faraday, but the outer skin panels are likely to be pressed by a supplier. “We are not revealing our supplier at this time,” Sampson says.
The FF 91 has double-wishbone front suspension and a multi-link rear, both suspended on air springs and mounted on subframes, which should aid rolling refinement.
There are three 350bhp electric motors: one centrally mounted at the front and two driving the rear wheels. “The FF’s motors are designed, engineered, and built in-house. And our VPA allows for multiple motor configurations,” says Sampson.
The front steering is electrically assisted, as is the active rear steering, which, Sampson says, “improves high-speed agility and handling, cornering and low-speed turning radius”.
This might well be important because the FF 91 is a big saloon. At 5.2m long, it is in stretch-limo territory, whereas the 4.9m-long Tesla S is at the entry point of the luxury car segment.
Faraday also says it’ll be launched with a breakthrough battery pack, co-developed with Korea’s LG Chem. The individual cells, the basic building blocks of the battery pack, are claimed to be of unique design and the pack itself is said to be more efficiently bundled than any rival.
“The battery modules have been developed using new architecture, so we can fit more cells into each module,” says Sampson.
The FF 91’s battery pack is rated at 130kWh, 30% more than the most energy-dense Tesla pack, the P100D. As a result, Faraday is playing up the FF 91’s performance against Tesla. The CES debut involved moving cars and a video of a drag race between the two. The performance caught the eye of Tesla owner Elon Musk, who subsequently tweeted about the latest iteration of his company’s ‘Ludicrous’ mode: “Looks like 0-60mph in 2.34sec might be achievable”.
The Faraday’s water-cooled battery is arranged in ‘strings’ and the FF 91 has six of these buried inside the chassis, suggesting that each module is rated at 21kWh.
Faraday is planning a range of models – some reports say as many as nine – and smaller cars with shorter wheelbases will have less space for batteries and a reduced capacity. “Our entire platform has been built around the idea of modularity and scalability,” says Sampson. “Future FF vehicles will utilise the same underpinnings and technologies as FF 91, but with different power and battery configurations.”
Faraday is also claiming a breakthrough for its electrical control circuitry, the black boxes that control the flow of electrons into and out of the battery and dictate much of an EV’s on-road performance. Faraday’s patented design is called the ‘echelon inverter’ and it co-ordinates the inflow and outflow of the FF91’s six strings, each controlled via its own ‘module monitoring board’.
Another big part of the Faraday project is autonomous driving, built around a camera that pops up from the FF 91’s bonnet. At the CES debut, a self-driving FF91 manoeuvred itself into a parking space in a Las Vegas lot. It didn’t work first time but was subsequently coaxed into life.
The CES launch certainly generated interest in the FF 91, with 64,000 reservations reported, although Faraday hasn’t revealed how many of those were priority reservations backed by a $5000 deposit.
Given that the FF 91’s price is tipped to be around $200,000 in the US – double the price of a Model S – these are enormous numbers of potential customers. However, Paul Nieuwenhuis of Cardiff University’s Electric Vehicle Centre of Excellence questions whether the Faraday business model can deliver the customer experience that Musk has created for Tesla owners with the Supercharger network.
“This makes owning a Tesla such an attractive proposition in the US, the idea of being able to roam just about anywhere,” he says. “I think people underestimate the customer experience aspect of Tesla’s offering.”
There is no promise yet from Faraday to launch a US-wide charging network, although a design for a 200kW DC fast-charger is in the pipeline, with a peak charge rate of “500 miles per hour”. Sampson says: “Access to these charging stations will be available to all FF users.”
So far Faraday has built a handful of ‘beta’ prototypes, which were seen running at CES. Faraday categorises these as engineering evaluation cars. They’re handbuilt and lack grained plastics or a production finish.
The world will know Faraday is approaching production when ‘gamma’ prototypes appear off production tooling. There’s no date for these prototypes yet, but given the 2018 production launch, they must appear this year.
Production is where the Faraday plan poses more questions than answers because the factory strategy appears to be in some disorder. Of course, the $1 billion cost of building a plant and equipping it with production machinery, tooling and a trained workforce is the point where investors might be expected to blink. Once funds are committed, there’s no going back and late last year, as preliminary factory construction began, Faraday hit a funding crisis.
Faraday has already earmarked a huge 900-acre site north of Las Vegas, on the Apex Industrial Park, for a factory that, it says, will cover 3.2 million square feet and assemble 150,000 cars a year starting in 2018.
Work to level the site started in August 2016 and was due to be finished last year. But the contractor, AECOM, stopped work in November, citing an unpaid bill of $21m. Back then, Faraday admitted to “temporarily adjusting its construction schedule”.
Because Faraday has received at least $300m in tax incentives from the State of Nevada to set up its Vegas factory, this tricky gestation has come under close scrutiny.
Then last week, Reuters reported that Faraday was scaling back its Nevada plant to 650,000sq ft and 10,000 cars a year and putting back the start of production to 2019. This part of the factory plan makes sense, although it implies a loss of face, a deeply uncomfortable place for a Chinese company to be in. A less ambitious start-up would be easier and less costly to manage, and a 2019 launch date would give suppliers and engineers breathing space.
However, spokesman Richard Zhu takes issue with the report and maintains that Faraday is forging ahead with its original launch date.
“Construction and production will start as soon as possible, aiming to deliver vehicles in 2018, not 2019,” he told Autocar by email.
The 650,000sq ft plant is an “additional facility” and will be “integrated into the larger facility as that comes online in the future”. Zhu calls the 650,000sq ft plant the “Stage 1 Manufacturing Project” and the 3.2m sq ft plant the “Stage 2 Manufacturing Project”.
Zhu says: “Stage 2 is also planned to start later this year. As stated above, we are taking a multi-stage manufacturing strategy.”
The picture is also fogged by a plan by LeEco, a Chinese sister company to Faraday, to build its own electric car factory in China. “As far as I know, this site is our strategic partner LeEco’s facility. We don’t comment on their plans,” says Zhu.
Given Faraday’s incredibly tight production and engineering timeline and concerns over its muddled factory strategy, it is easy to write off this new electric car. Time will tell, of course, but right now Faraday appears to be resolute and determined to establish itself.