Forget Faraday Future’s Crazy Concept Car
Until a few weeks ago, no one knew very much at all about Faraday Future. The startup is backed by Chinese billionaire Jia Yueting, the founder of “China’s Netflix,” LeTV. It has plans to build a 900-acre, $1 billion factory in Nevada, starting this month.
But the automaker was conspicuously secretive about its intentions. Rumors varied: Some thought it was creating an electric car to rival Tesla in style and luxury. Others figured Faraday would go for a vehicle dedicated to the shared mobility movement. Whatever it would be, it was supposed to change the auto industry.
So when the company pulled the white satin cover off its concept car at CES, it surprised the audience in two ways—one good, one not.
The FFZero1 is a race car from the future, built around a gleaming white single-seat cockpit. The clear rear fin projects lap times and telematics information. The driver’s seat is at a 45-degree angle to the ground. There’s a smartphone embedded in the steering wheel. All cool ideas, sure. But there are plenty of small automakers offering wild vehicles. This concept hardly delivers on Faraday’s promise to change the industry with unprecedented speed and new ideas.
It’s neither the luxury electric car nor the shared vehicle people were expecting. Anyone hoping for a realistic idea of what they might be buying or sharing in the near future would have been disappointed. Furthermore, Faraday says it has no plans to build the thing. “That project is very much on the side,” says Richard Kim, Faraday’s head of design. So why promise to change the world, then reveal a concept car that is not designed to ever see road or track?
The importance of the FFZero1 has nothing to do with any of its flashy features. What matters is what Faraday calls its variable platform architecture. This is the core of the company’s bid to make cars in a whole new, and much faster, way.
Automakers usually need about five years to develop a new car. Faraday says it can move way faster, thanks to its platform architecture. The idea is to build all its vehicles around the same basic skeleton, so you don’t need to go back to the start each time you think up a new car. The platform, the startup says, allows it to add or remove batteries and extend or shorten the chassis depending on the body that will be attached.
Most automakers have been doing this for decades. Ford or Honda can use the same platform to underpin different bodies, from sedans to crossovers, the world over, which makes producing and selling those cars more cheaply and in different markets possible. But Faraday takes the concept further. It says it will use one platform for everything from, say, a two-seat commuter car to a three-row crossover. It can just adjust the side rails to add more “strings” of batteries, as it calls the rows of power cells under the floor of the car.
Faraday says its platform is the basis of the FFZero1, but that doesn’t prove much. The concept, after all, never drove anywhere. The magic sauce was present on stage and looked delicious, but no one was allowed to taste it for themselves. There’s other cause for skepticism: The auto industry is notoriously tough to break into. The demands of designing, building, selling, and maintaining vehicles that use tens of thousands of parts and must conform to nearly endless regulations have been the death of many an upstart automaker—Fisker, DeLorean, Tucker, Vector Motors, and so on. Tesla, the first new successful American automaker since Chrysler, is barely established—it offers two models, and sells as many cars in a year as GM sells in a weekend.
Kim says Faraday already has working test vehicles, a model based on the platform architecture (teasers in the video it showed at its CES press conference suggest this test sled is a crossover). Kim says the company’s already working on a second design, even though the public has yet to see the first one.
Faraday Future boasts that it moves at the speed of a Silicon Valley tech company (it brings up Apple a lot), not at that of the traditional automakers. The company was founded a mere 18 months ago. Kim says founder and VP Nick Sampson was being humble when he said Faraday Future had been working on the car that long. “That’s when he had the idea,” Kim says. “We didn’t start working on the car until March 2015.”
Many Faraday employees come from other car companies. Kim worked for Audi and BMW (where he designed the funky, electric i8 and i3). He and his team had to unlearn old habits, he says. “If we do it the way we used to do it, we won’t hit the timeline,” for Faraday Future’s first vehicle launch.
That timeline is remarkably short: Sampson says Faraday will have a production-ready vehicle in about two years. Not surprisingly, there are skeptics. Among them is Jay Rogers, co-founder and CEO of Local Motors. He’s also trying to change the car production process, by 3D printing vehicles in “micro-factories.” Faraday, with a 10-year commitment to that huge factory in Nevada and plans to hire up to 4,500 people, “is a big car company masquerading as a nimble car company,” he says.
Sampson points to his company’s growth, pointing out that the company has already outgrown its headquarters and bought a second building to house its employees, in addition to the land it’s bought in North Las Vegas and the building it’s leased for constructing prototypes. “After 20 months of existence,” he says, “we had a display stand like we had at CES even, with a non-working model sitting there. After 20 months of operation, did Tesla have a display stand like that?”
Still, it’s no guarantee Faraday can make it selling cars. An 18-month or two-year projection for a market-ready vehicle is pretty aggressive, says Akshay Anand, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book. The biggest challenge the company will face is the same one that stymied Tesla for so long: meeting production timelines. “They’ve done a good job of creating buzz,” Anand says, “but there are so many logistics that we don’t know about. It’s an uphill battle for them. Producing a car is just hard.”1
Despite Faraday’s very wealthy backer (along with some nice incentives from Nevada to build its factory in the state), success is not a given. “Every great company is an overnight success twenty years in the making,” Rogers says. If Faraday succeeds, it’ll move faster than that. But just how quickly it can move remains to be seen.