Peeking Behind the Silicon Curtain
Up until the middle of last year, few had heard of Faraday Future, or FF as it prefers to be called. Then at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the world was formally introduced to the mysterious electric car startup through a lightning storm of hype. The company had a wild race car concept and many claims about being innovative and disruptive but not a lot of concrete proof that it could deliver on any of its promises. That still remains to be seen, but FF has certainly been busy since CES. We were recently invited to FF’s R & D facility in Gardena, California, to get a behind-the-scenes look at how the highly secretive tech company operates and to see what it’s been working on for the past year.
The first thing that struck me was how full the parking lot was. There were hundreds of cars wedged anywhere they could fit, so space was extremely limited at the R & D complex, which Nissan formerly occupied. The same is true inside the building. FF says it has more than 1,400 employees worldwide, and that isn’t hard to believe when you enter the design and engineering floor. The open-layout office is jam-packed with people who have monitors positioned nearly end to end. R & D and engineering chief Nick Sampson, one of FF’s many ex-Tesla hires, says this close proximity promotes communication and collaboration between departments. In turn, that helps smooth the development process.
FF says that process is how the Faraday production car came together in a little over a year. The company does much of its design and development virtually, using purely digital models and simulations before ever producing a single physical component. Although it’s not a new idea, FF employs this virtual design philosophy at every step. It uses virtual reality headsets to sit in and experience a car’s interior before it’s built and to predict crash test performance through computer simulations well in advance of the actual test. FF even runs manufacturing simulations to work out any potential issues before production begins.
On the first floor, I was introduced to FF’s senior director of powertrain, Silva Hiti, who is an EV engineering veteran from the GM EV1 Gen II program. She showed me the electric motors and control units FF has developed for its Variable Product Architecture (VPA), which is the scalable platform that will underpin all FF models. VPA can accommodate one to four motors, but Hiti says that three motors is plenty to achieve acceleration matching Tesla’s Ludicrous mode. FF’s big gun is a compact dual-motor unit, essentially two electric motors attached back to back. Each motor transmits power independently to one wheel, and a computer works out how much torque to send for a given situation, allowing for ultra-fast and precise torque vectoring. No specs were given, but to give an idea, Sampson says the unit makes more power than the 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 in his C7 Corvette Z06 (650 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque) and is only a fraction of the weight. In a three-motor layout, the dual-motor unit is placed on the rear axle.
The VPA platform looks like other skateboard-type chassis we’ve seen, but it will be scalable to allow for a range of variants, much like Volkswagen’s upcoming MEB platform. Wheelbase length can be increased or decreased depending on the application, with strings of battery cells added or removed depending on size. FF tells us its first battery pack will exceed 100 kilowatt-hours, which is the highest-capacity pack available from Tesla. The company wouldn’t say what specific vehicle size categories the platform could support, but a video released earlier this year appears to show variants ranging from subcompact to full size.
FF is apparently already hard at work on those variants. We made our way to the design studio, and although all the models were covered up, I could make out at least three different vehicle shapes under the sheets. Those models are milled out of foam, but traditional clay is another material used. One of the largest 3-D scanners on the West Coast helps the FF design team, led by former BMW designer Richard Kim, create 3-D renderings of cars, which can then be sculpted and polished digitally.
The parking lot was the last stop on the tour. It had cleared out a bit now that it was early evening. The FF prototype we’ve seen running around Southern California was outside and ready to meet us. To me the vehicle still looks like a low-slung SUV riding on large wheels and featuring a raked rear end. Accompanying the test mule was Hong Bae, director of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and self-driving. Without going into specifics, Bae said the production car will use a combination of radar, lidar, ultrasonic sensors, and HD cameras. He said it will be available at launch with Level 4 autonomous functions (where regulations allow), including a valet feature that lets drivers auto-park and summon their car through an app. Bae says the system is future-proofed, but all the sensors are modular in case they need to be upgraded.
FF would not talk about its business or production plans, but it did say LeEco is merely a strategic partner. It also said there’s little overlap with R & D, much of which is done in-house at Faraday. However, it can’t be ignored that LeEco is low on cash. Jia Yueting, the Chinese tech conglomerate’s chairman and CEO, is one of FF’s financial backers. It’s unknown, however, how vital he or his company are to Faraday’s financial health. Whatever Faraday’s cash situation is, it’s clear that it has developed a real car. FF has released several teasers for that vehicle, and so far the images all live up to the future in the company’s name. Faraday’s production car will be revealed at CES 2017 next month. Once that veil of secrecy is lifted, it will need to face the next (potentially larger) hurdle: mass-producing and selling the thing. We hope to learn more details on that front in January.