Mean Green Luxury Machines

Mean Green Luxury Machines
The Faraday Future FF91 packs 1,000 horsepower to propel it off the line at neck-snapping speeds. And all the beast’s brawn is generated by two electric motors.

Blink and you're likely to miss it. Pumping out a jaw-dropping 1,000 horsepower, the new FF91 is not only one of the world's most powerful automobiles, but it's also the fastest. Launching from 0 to 60 in a blistering 2.39 seconds, it will leave even the Ferrari 488 GTB eating its dust. That's all the more impressive when you realize the first production model from the California-based, Chinese-funded Faraday Future is powered by two electric motors.

If your idea of a battery-electric vehicle is a slow, boring econobox that can barely get you to work and back without running out of juice, you better think twice. Products like the Faraday Future FF91, Tesla Model S P90d, Porsche Mission E, Karma Revero and BMW i8 are among a growing list of electrified automobiles that are mean, as well as green. The idea of using electric propulsion in luxury and performance cars might seem a contradiction. But it is quickly becoming the rule, rather than the exception. That's due, in part, to ever-tougher emissions and fuel economy standards. Automotive engineers have also discovered that battery drivetrains can deliver tremendous amounts of power to go with their improved mileage and reduced emissions.

You might not glimpse the future by looking at the current numbers. Add up all the conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrids and pure battery-electric vehicles—HEVs, PHEVs and BEVs—sold in 2016 and they account for barely 3.5 percent of the total American new car market. (The story isn't much different in Europe or Japan.) Yet, industry analysts predict that a decade from now, electrified models could account for as much as a third of global vehicle sales, while dominating the luxury and performance segments. When Ford Motor Co. is planning a hybrid Mustang and Aston Martin is readying an all-electric version of its four-door sports car, to be called the RapidE, you know the industry is getting turned on.

Anyone who thought battery power is just for a select niche of techies and greenies would have clearly come away with a very different opinion after touring last autumn's Paris Motor Show. All they had to do was ask Daimler AG Chairman and CEO Dieter Zetsche, who assured a media audience that the Mercedes-Benz brand is moving electric vehicles "into the fast lane."

The German automaker had already committed to putting 10 plug-in hybrids and several pure battery-electric models into production over the next several years. But at the Paris show, Zetsche helped lift the covers off the Mercedes Generation EQ concept, a show car that will make the transition into a production model before the end of the decade. And it will anchor an entirely new brand-within-a-brand called Mercedes EQ. "The emission-free automobile is the future," Zetsche announced.

Mercedes EQ is far from unique. Its Bavarian archrival actually got there first with the launch of its own sub-brand, BMW i. It currently offers several different electrified options: the $141,000 plug-in hybrid i8 sports car and, for those on a tighter budget, the $42,000 all-electric i3 city car. "A new era of mobility is about to begin," the CEO Harald Krueger said during a media roundtable in Los Angeles a few months back that followed the unveiling of an assortment of BMW show cars. While there are no immediate plans to build the BMW Vision 100 concept, the little i brand will get at least two more models over the next few years, including a roadster version of the i8.

European automakers were initially slow to embrace electrification—largely due to their historical focus on high—mileage diesels-but that's rapidly changing, and for several reasons. Battery technology improvement is one factor. Increasingly stringent global emissions and mileage standards is another. There's also the backlash from Volkswagen AG's costly and embarrassing diesel emissions scandal. The automaker had long promised its newest "oil burners" could deliver solid mileage, great performance and extremely low emissions. But, in a word, it lied, resorting to highly sophisticated software code that could detect when one of its VW, Audi or Porsche diesel models was undergoing emissions tests and briefly modify engine settings to meet U.S. standards. Otherwise, the engines would spew out as much as 40 times the mandated pollution limits.

While VW is struggling to find a fix, company officials also announced in Paris that they will launch a battery-based sub-brand, VW I.D., with at least 30 plug-based models set to reach market by 2025. And that doesn't include the various plug-ins and BEVs coming from the German giant's numerous upscale brands. Bentley, for one, is about to launch a PHEV version of its new Bentayga sport-utility vehicle, and even Lamborghini will have a plug-in option for the Urus SUV it is developing.

Then there's Audi, which already markets an assortment of PHEV models, such as the A3 e-tron. The mid-range luxury marque has even bigger plans in the works. The brand's CEO Rupert Stadler recently forecasted that 25 to 30 percent of Audi's sales will come from electrified models by 2025. He hinted that at least three models are already in the works, including an all-electric midsize SUV. Due to market in 2018, it will serve as an alternative to the popular Q5 ute and likely be called the Q6 e-tron.

Many of the new plug-based models are utility vehicles, perhaps no surprise, considering that in the U.S. market SUVs, pickups and vans now account for nearly two-thirds of all new vehicle sales, with demand growing in overseas markets as diverse as Berlin and Beijing. Alternative power sources can help SUVs and other light trucks, with their large sizes and poorer aerodynamics, meet increasingly stringent government mileage and emissions mandates. Jaguar's new F-Pace has been on sale for less than a year, but it's already the brand's best-seller. So, it seems logical that the British marque's new I-Pace concept is also an SUV—in this case, however, one powered by a twin-motor electric driveline. While similar in overall size to the F-Pace, the prototype has a decidedly different look and proportions. Its distinctive cab-forward design is meant to maximize the benefits of battery propulsion. That means neck-snapping acceleration as well as the passenger and cargo space usually found in a size class above it.

"Electrification gives us the opportunity to tear up the [design] rulebook," said Ian Callum, Jaguar's design director, during a media background briefing ahead of the official I-Pace debut at November's L.A. Auto Show. Like almost all of the latest battery-electric vehicles, the I-Pace—which will go into production in two years—uses a platform that's something like a giant skateboard. Its batteries are integrated into the vehicle load floor, with the motors mounted onto the front and rear axles. Without a big engine under the hood, much of that space can be repurposed, yielding a cavernous interior despite the concept's modest exterior footprint.

It's a layout you'll be seeing more frequently in the future and, with automakers also rushing to put autonomous technology into production early in the next decade, it will make it possible for passengers and drivers alike to swivel seats and transform their vehicles into living rooms on wheels.

Expect to see virtually every major, high-line automaker add new plug-based models, as well as conventional hybrids, to their lineups by the end of the decade. You'll also see a lot of new names enter a business that had been all but closed to start-ups since the end of the Second World War. None is as ambitious as Tesla Motors, founded by the visionary South African entrepreneur Elon Musk—who also started up the private SpaceX rocket service. Musk was intent on building a rocket on wheels, starting with the limited-production two-seat Tesla Roadster. It's pushing the performance envelope even further with its two current product lines, the Model S sedan and Model X utility vehicle. Equipped with the optional Ludicrous Mode—the name lifted from the Mel Brooks movie Spaceballs—they can speed from 0 to 60 in less than three seconds. In fact, with that optional performance package, the Model S is so fast that it's the first production car ever to generate more than one full G of acceleration—in other words, it could out-accelerate the force of gravity.

But an assortment of new rivals want to topple Tesla from its performance perch. That includes the likes of Faraday Future, which is building a new factory near Las Vegas to start building its FF91 hypercar in 2018. With about 60 percent more power than the Model S with Ludicrous Mode, it's several tenths of a second faster off the line. Another promising start-up is Lucid Motors, which is billing its $140,000 Lucid Air as a "private jet on wheels." It not only matches the FF91's 1,000 horsepower, but equips its cabin with Bentley-esque features, such as rear seats that can fold nearly flat.

Performance is one thing, but the plug-in vehicles now coming to market aim to overcome another serious obstacle to consumer acceptance: dreaded "range anxiety." There are several ways to accomplish this. One is the plug-in hybrid—sometimes known as an extended-range electric vehicle. The new BMW 530e, which comes to market by the middle of this year, is a good example. It pairs a turbocharged four-cylinder engine with an electric motor, drawing power from a modest-sized lithium-ion battery pack able to yield about 30 miles per charge. Studies show that's enough for the typical American worker's daily commute. But for longer drives, the gas engine takes over when the battery runs down. The combination powertrain requires little to no sacrifice, notes Ludwig Willisch, the CEO of BMW's North American operations, delivering the same performance as the pure, gas-powered 530i model.

"We think plug-ins will be the most popular solution," at least in the near-term, for most buyers, says Willisch, and most of BMW's key competitors seem to agree, considering there will be north of 30—and possibly as many as 40—luxury plug-in hybrids on the market by the beginning of the coming decade.

But some green car proponents contend that PHEVs are just a stop-gap solution. Count Tesla's Musk among them. His answer to range anxiety is to pack more—and more powerful—batteries into his products. The new Model S 100d is the current mileage champ, the first production electric vehicle to top 300 miles a charge. But, again, rivals aren't ceding that title to Tesla. Audi is aiming for as much as 400 miles in range with its Q6 e-tron, and the FF91 and Lucid Air are targeting similar numbers. There's a good shot we'll see battery cars soon hitting 500 miles, or double what a typical car can deliver between fill-ups.

Only a few years ago, that would have priced electric vehicles out of the hands of all but the most affluent motorists. But there's a revolution underway with lithium-ion technology. Batteries are not only becoming smaller, lighter and more powerful, but far more affordable. When Nissan launched the world's first mass-production battery-electric vehicle, the Leaf, in 2010, a kilowatt-hour of lithium cells cost about $1,000. Its 24 kWh pack—barely good enough for 100 miles a charge—cost the factory $24,000. While most manufacturers treat battery data like a state secret, General Motors has revealed it is paying less than $150 a kilowatt-hour for the cells in its new Chevrolet Bolt EV. Its 60 kWh pack, capable of 238 miles per charge, costs less than $10,000.

That still must come down. The Boston Consulting Group estimates batteries eventually will need to drop below $100 per kWh to make EVs cost-competitive with conventional gas models. But that could be reached before the end of the decade.

There's yet another challenge to widespread acceptance: keeping your EV charged. When the Leaf hit market just seven years ago, there were only a few thousand of the faster, 240-volt Level 2 public charging facilities across the entire U.S. But as of late last year, the U.S. Department of Energy counted 14,349 of them, capable of handling more than 36,000 vehicles at a time—and that doesn't include the tens of thousands of chargers EV owners have installed. While many of these are publicly operated, there's growing corporate support, with a number of private ventures, such as ChargePoint, expecting to tap into a lucrative business opportunity in the coming years. "It won't be long before drivers start suffering from ‘gas anxiety,' not range anxiety," says ChargePoint CEO Pasquale Romano.

The numbers are expected to continue to grow—in some communities, new housing and commercial projects must add chargers. But, equally important, there are starting to be more super-fast, Level 3 chargers that can give a Tesla Model S P100d an 80 percent top-off in 30 to 60 minutes. (Tesla itself is setting up a proprietary network of high-speed Superchargers across North America.) That means you can now travel from San Francisco, say, to Los Angeles, make a lunch stop along the way and have your car ready to go before you're done eating. In Europe, meanwhile, a public-private consortium that includes BMW, Daimler, Ford and the various Volkswagen AG brands will soon begin rolling out ultra-fast Level 4 chargers. A Chevrolet Bolt could get an 80 percent recharge in 10 minutes or less.

Not everyone is convinced the technology will carve out a significant niche—never mind completely supplant the time-tested internal combustion engine. The challenge remains to drive down costs and install enough fast chargers to satisfy a growing universe of plug-in models.

And automotive engineers working on gas and diesel powertrains are not throwing in the towel. An assortment of promising technologies could yield significant improvements in fuel economy while delivering still better performance and emissions numbers. Mazda is expected to launch one such breakthrough late next year in the next-generation Mazda3 model. Dubbed the homogeneous-charge compression ignition, or HCCI, it has many of the positive attributes of the diesel engine—using compression, rather than spark plugs to ignite the air/fuel mixture—but runs on gasoline. HCCI should boost fuel efficiency by 30 percent compared with traditional gas engines.

Then there's Achates, a San Diego-based research and engineering firm, which has contracts from seven different automakers to develop something called the opposed-piston engine, or OP-E. It uses two pistons per cylinder and also relies on compression, rather than spark, ignition, doubling the mileage of a conventional gas engine. Nissan's next-generation QX50 SUV will, for 2018, mark the debut of the Variable-Compression Turbo engine, which can adjust its compression ratio from 8:1 to 14:1, depending upon demands for power and fuel economy. Cheap fuel and high-efficiency engines could set a tough hurdle for electric vehicles to clear.

Major automakers like VW, Toyota, Nissan and General Motors are straining their budgets trying to cover all the possible bases. The challenge could prove especially tough for start-ups like Tesla and Faraday Future. Musk and company have only rarely turned a profit—though they hope to get solidly into the black with next year's launch of the mid-priced Model 3 sedan. Faraday, meanwhile, has temporarily halted work on its Nevada assembly plant while it raises new capital.

No one knows more about the financial challenge of launching a new battery-car company than Henrik Fisker. The Danish car designer and entrepreneur's promising Fisker Automotive had a spectacular short circuit, declaring bankruptcy in 2013. Its assets, however, were purchased by China's Wanxiang Group which recently renamed the company Karma, and Fisker's plug-in hybrid model is itself now called the Revero. The name is new, as are a few subtle details, such as the grille and badge, but "The vehicle...is largely the same" as the old Fisker, says Jim Taylor, the long-time General Motors executive who is now serving as the COO of California-based Karma. Karma was the original name for the four-seat plug-in hybrid. Despite Fisker's financial problems, the sleek sports car received widespread praise for its styling and unique drivetrain. And so, with a few touches to bring it up to date, the new owners have brought it back.

On the outside, the Revero gets tweaks to the original "moustache" grille, as well as new wheels and eight new paint colors. There's also a new solar roof capable of producing enough power each day to travel another 1.5 miles in electric mode.

Interior electronics have all been updated. Like the original plug-in, Revero uses two electric motors, along with the gas engine. Karma is reportedly looking to replace that General Motors-sourced I-4 powerplant with a more sophisticated BMW engine. Even six years after it was first introduced, the sports car remains one of the sexiest vehicles on the road.

For all the technical challenges, politics are also likely to play a role in determining how big the battery-car market grows. America's new President Donald Trump has shown plenty of skepticism, among other things, about global warming, something he has labeled a Chinese "hoax." He is giving strong consideration to rolling back the 54.5 mpg CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standard, as well as the $7,500 federal tax credits for qualifying electric vehicles. Those moves, some worry, could cause the American market for green vehicles to collapse.

"The brief answer is that we don't know what will occur with a Trump administration and electric vehicles," says David Reichmuth, an executive with the Union of Concerned Scientists. But not everyone is quite so worried. "I don't think people are choosing electric cars only because of subsidies," says Annette Winkler, a senior executive with Daimler AG, and head of the German maker's Smart brand.

She also believes that even if the new administration pulls the plug, demand for electrified models will continue to grow in other markets where governments are far more committed to the technology. China is aggressively encouraging a switch to electric propulsion as an answer to its endemic smog problems. In some cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, there are monthly limits on new vehicle registrations—restrictions that don't apply to electric vehicles. In 2015, China became the world's largest market for plug-in models. Europe, meanwhile, is also encouraging electrification and a number of cities, such as Paris, are considering restrictions that might bar anything but zero-emissions vehicles. Germany, home of the Autobahn, has gone so far as to lay out preliminary plans to ban all internal combustion engine vehicles within the next two decades.
So, despite the challenges they still face, the future is looking increasingly positive for plug models, says Jaguar design chief Callum. "Our view is that electric cars are here to stay." 

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of the website TheDetroitBureau.com.