Faraday Future's FF 91 prototype electric crossover vehicle is unveiled during a press event for CES 2017 at The Pavilions at Las Vegas Market on January 3, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The headquarters of Faraday Future is a hive of activity, 1,000 workers buzzing away on a powerful electric car that seems to have more in common with a private jet than anything on the road.
But the coming months will show whether this company has produced the next automotive milestone or if it stands as an example of yet another tech startup that promised more than it could deliver.
Between plans to cancel a billion-dollar Nevada factory build-out and increasing competition in the electric vehicle space from start-ups and auto manufacturers alike, the signs are ominous.
Three years ago. Faraday Future launched with a vow to pick up where Tesla left off, offering a 1,000-horsepower beast that could cruise up to 400s between recharges, at an undisclosed price.
Backed by Chinese tech billionaire Jia Yueting, FF started hiring engineers from BMW, Tesla and other rivals, rolled out a sleek if puzzling race car prototype at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, and announced it would spend a billion to build a sprawling factory in Las Vegas.
On Monday, the company announced it would scuttle that factory build and instead was on the hunt for warehouse space in California or Nevada where it could begin manufacturing its first car, the FF 91, in time for a 2018 rollout.
“Our focus now is on one single car and its success,” Peter Savagian, FF's vice president of propulsion, told USA TODAY during a headquarters tour earlier this week.
Savagian, an 18-year veteran of General Motors, admitted that recent times have been tough, largely the byproduct of the faltering financial foundation of Yueting’s LeEco tech empire.
Last week, Chinese authorities froze nearly $200 million in assets belonging to Yueting and his wife due to unpaid loans. There have also been reports that FF has been missing vendor payments. And some high-profile hires have not stuck around, including former Ferrari North America CEO Marco Mattiacci, who left his chief branding officer post at FF after just seven months on the job.
For Savagian, FF represented a place to lead a bold experiment without endless bureaucracy. On the flip side, where a GM venture would be met with cash and staff, Savagian has had to rely on the enthusiasm, goodwill and creativity of its employees to make a technological breakthrough.
“Scarcity brings a focus,” said Savagian, explaining how a small FF team worked nights and weekends to prepare a FF 91 prototype for the grueling race up 14,000-foot Pikes Peak in Colorado. “That taught us that we could push our batteries to the limit and not have them overheat. It was invaluable, and we’re grateful people gave up their free time for it.”
On the hunt for $1 billion but free time and youthful enthusiasm do not a global automotive powerhouse make. And the clock is ticking.
Global CFO Stefan Krause, formerly of BMW and Deutsche Bank who was hired in March, is currently on a world tour to try and secure $1 billion in Series A funding from wealthy individuals willing to roll the dice on FF’s mobility vision.
“How do we get FF 91 to market by 2018 – that is the lens through which we have to view all of our management decisions," Krause told USA TODAY in a statement. "Using that approach, identifying an alternative that provides us with the ability to be up-and-running, fast, was the right decision to make.”
Krause has pit-stops planned for China, the Middle East and Europe, and the goal is to raise $500 million by the end of September and the other half by early 2018.
The money would go toward moving manufacturing equipment into whatever building it finds in the U.S., continuing research and develop on the FF 91 and, ideally, building a factory in China, according to FF officials.
But while an FF 91 would be a bit of a rival to Tesla’s Model X SUV, the company may not actually be focusing on producing cars for individual ownership. Instead, officials say they’re intrigued by a subscription model that would find consumers renting time with an FF 91.
That mobility reality, however, is a long ways off, says Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive.
“In many ways, being too far ahead is far worse than being behind, and I don’t see any situation where car ownership goes away anytime soon,” he says.
For Brauer, FF’s story has echoes in other Chinese-backed auto ventures that often are big on hype and short on execution.
Currently, that list would also include NIO, formerly NextEV and helmed by former Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior and Lucid Motors, whose Air sedan aims for the same luxurious footprint and wicked speed as FF 91. (FF has not said what a top-end FF 91 would cost, but the Lucid Air is slated to cost around $160,000.)
“Chinese companies who set up here just tend to overpromise and underdeliver,” says Brauer. “Add to that the fact that ultimately it’s far easier for an existing car company with a vast dealer network to go with an electric model than it is for a new company to come in a get market share.”
Brauer notes that countless automakers are on the EV hunt, even though at present those vehicles represent just 1% of U.S. sales. They include Volkswagen with an EV Golf, a revamped Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet’s Bolt, BMW’s i3 and Porsche’s coming Mission E sedan.
And, of course, there’s Tesla, which later this month begins rolling out its first mass-market sedan, the Model 3. The company is pinning great hopes on the model and aims to roughly quintuple production to 500,000 units a year. Tesla’s ultimate success could also undermine FF even if it managed to get a car into the market.
"We may see great things from Faraday in the next months, or this all could be a sign of an unraveling,” Brauer says.
A real company, hoping for a future
Inside FF’s cavernous headquarters, formerly Nissan’s U.S. HQ in an industrial district south of Los Angeles, workers man computer monitors as they design virtual parts and systems. In that sense, it resembles just about any other tech start-up, from Google to Facebook.
But two particular areas -- a 3D and virtual-reality equipped design studio and a sprawling prototype-filled garage -- make it clear that those computer-based designs are in fact being turned into a real product, notable given that FF’s longtime corporate stealth mode gave rise to questions about whether its cars were in fact vaporware.
The design studio features a 20-foot-wide glass screen that allows engineers to not only see their computer-generated designs at full scale and at high resolution, but also to interact with them via virtual-reality goggles.
Such innovation drastically cuts down on the time it takes for a design concept to become a physical reality, said Steve Oates, FF’s virtual reality specialist.
“This tech allowed us not only to do dozens of design iterations quickly, but it also helped us create a new car in 18 months where traditional methods might have taken three years,” he said.
Not far away, a dozen or so builders and fabricators are busy tweaking a half-dozen test cars, one of which was used for that Pikes Peak assault. Sub-assembly lines are packed with batteries, power inverters, motors and gearing, some of them vendor-sourced and other parts designed and built in-house.
If CFO Krause manages to round up some funding, the resulting car seems like a curious fit for the U.S. market.
As it turns out, the FF91 is more of a fast, large limousine rather than a than a nimble commuter EV, as revealed by inspection of the show car's interior as well as a short, low-speed ride around FF’s HQ in a test car. With its massaging rear seats, individual sound zones and mood lighting, the back seat of an FF 91 seems like something rivaling a Rolls-Royce. That means hire a chauffeur.
Technology abounds inside the FF 91, from myriad screens to fast WiFi connectivity to the potential for full autonomy thanks to radar, ultrasonic sensors, cameras and a LiDAR disc that pops out of the front hood when operational. Initially, the FF 91 would use these features to park itself only.
“When you think of a company like Waymo (Google’s self-driving car venture, which is aiming for full autonomy), they have unlimited funds and we are a start-up, so we need to be more realistic,” said Hong Bae, FF’s head of Advanced Drive Assisted Systems, who keeps a model of David Hasselhoff’s self-driving and talking Knight Rider KITT car on his desk.
Bae added that Tesla’s stated mission of having a car drive itself cross country by the end of the year is “a bit ambitious, maybe pushing the envelope too much. Our point is to focus on safety and redundancy."
At least Tesla, with its controversial Autopilot system, has an envelope to push. Right now, Bae and his colleagues just have to hope there is future for a company with future in its name.
What remains in doubt is whether FF's devoted workers will be given the financial leeway to see the fruits of their three-year labors hit the road.