Faraday Future’s over-the-top spaceship car has everyone missing the point

Zowie! Faraday Future

Until Monday, Faraday Future was a secretive California startup that was trickling out information about its business.

But at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it pulled the cover off a completely insane concept car that looks ready to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans…on the rings of Saturn.

Naturally, a company that’s gone from being so secretive to so flashy is going to draw criticism. People don’t seem to know what to make of the concept car’s over the top design, or features like the fact that it only holds a single driver, for example.

But the critics are missing the point. The biggest news about Faraday Future wasn’t the out of this world concept car. It was how the company plans to make its cars.

This reportedly very well-funded upstart automaker (its banker is the Chinese company LeTV) has learned many lessons from the failures of the previous wave of electric-car startups, and Tesla of course.

It all boils down to engineering. And an auto industry tactic that actually makes much more sense for electric vehicles than for conventional cars.

It’s the platform, stupid

Faraday will use a modular-platform approach to build its cars. Think of a very simple LEGO set.

Essentially, you have a single rectangular base that can be large or small, depending on whether you want a peppy 2-door sports car or a stretched SUV limo. Then you snap on batteries and motors until you get the range and performance that the car you want to build requires.

A little city car would need a small battery and a single motor. The FFZERO1 concept from CES would have huge battery and four motors.

You’d get 50 horsepower from the former and 1,000 horsepower from the latter. Zero-to-60 in 15 minutes versus 0-60 in less than three seconds.

The modular platform approach has always been very attractive to automakers because it means they can use a small number of components to assemble numerous different cars. But traditional companies like Volkswagen, which has been working on modular platforming for years, struggle to mix and match vehicle architectures with engine choices.

Electric cars solve that problem because they can all use the same toolkit of motors and batteries.

Concept cars are hype

Second, although the FFZERO1 baffled the tech media that gathers at CES, Faraday was really just pulling a page from the oldest of old-school auto show playbooks: Knock their socks off with wild, wild, wild dream machines.

This is one of the big reasons why people go to car shows: to be dazzled by visions of the future.

Technoheads, based on their reaction to the FFZERO1, appear to want something more realistic.

But so what if Faraday will never actually build the FFZERO1?

It showcases their thinking — and it amps up the tactic that Tesla employed when it rolled out its first car, the very fast and very sexy Roadster. Faraday might be perfectly capable of constructing a golf cart with its platform, but it also want’s to capture the world’s imagination with a roadgoing spaceship. Traditionally, car makers have been pretty good at this.

Anyway, I was blown away by the FFZERO1..

Mercedes Benz concept car
Mercedes insane self-driving concept car. Business Insider

Echoes of Detroit in 2015

And I was immediately reminded of how the 2015 car show season officially kicked off, in Detroit with Ford’s reveal of the stunning GT supercar. The GT — which heralded Ford’s return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race 50 years after its epic 1-2-3 finish in 1966 — is also at CES.

Ford is gearing up for the racing season and preparing to begin delivering roadworthy $400,000 examples of the car to customers.

2016 FORD GT
The Ford GT. Ford

Faraday’s concept car might not even be able to move, but it was certainly glorious to look at.

According to Sampson, to get an idea of where Faraday is going, you have to be able to set your time machine for a world 10 or 20 years from now. He compared this experience to climbing a mountain and then peering back to see the path you took to get to the top — but in your imagination.

Risky business

Obviously, Faraday’s plan is fraught with risk, and to cope with that they have an adaptable business plan. Much of their strategy hinges, as Sampson told me, on more widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

He maintains that with more choice in the market, consumers will start to think more realistically about EVs as alternatives to gas-burning cars.

But a mass-EV market has yet to materialise, and the major automakers are only keeping their electric efforts going to hedge their bets — to avoid being unprepared for higher fuel-efficiency requirements from the government. That isn’t to say that they’re insincere about EVs, but the truth is that the buyers aren’t there right now.

Tesla Model X
Maybe Faraday and Tesla actually are rivals. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Many of those buyers are buying Tesla’s, but, because Tesla won’t really begin platforming its vehicles until the Model 3 mass-market car launches in 2017, it has to fall back on its innovative powertrain management systems and battery design, which can serve up both long range and scorching performance. The cars themselves, however, have been at times problematic to build.

Tesla of course is an electric car company and nothing else. And in this respect and interesting comparison between Tesla and Faraday emerges.

It was Ford that got the American auto industry going, over 100 years ago and with one car, the Model T. Tesla, until recently, was selling only one car, the Model S (the Model X SUV was added to that lineup in 2015).

General Motors assembled a group of car makers into a single holding company and sought to provide more choice among brands. That’s like what Faraday wants to do — be able to build a wide variety of different cars, to address a wide variety of future mobility needs.

And despite the naysayers, of which I used to be one, Faraday is off to an impressive start.

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