Lucid Motors’ David Moseley: EV or ICE, “It Is All Physics”

David Moseley, Director, Powertrain, CAE Crash & Safety for electric-vehicle startup Lucid Motors, believes engineering ICEs or EVs isn't all that different. (Image: Lucid Motors)

As Director, Powertrain, CAE Crash & Safety for electric-vehicle startup Lucid Motors, David Moseley may hold one of the most intriguing—and possibly even most-envied—jobs in the auto industry. Leading up to his SAE WCX17 Leadership Summit panel discussion, “How, What and if You Will Drive in the Next Decade,” Moseley discussed the not-really-so-different aspects of EV and internal-combustion engineering, why a powertrain’s still just a powertrain—and why he ponied up his own money for a deposit on Lucid’s Air electric luxury sedan.

Prototype of Lucid's Air, a 1,000-hp, AWD luxury sedan the company plans to build in Arizona and begin selling in 2018 (Image: Lucid Motors).

Should the auto industry step away from the term “powertrain” and shift to “propulsion” as the march toward electrification continues?

I’m happy to keep calling it a powertrain–as far as I am concerned it’s just the sequence of energy transformations from source to tractive effort, whether ICE, fuel cell, battery/motor or [Star] Trek-y warp-drive. I don’t think we need a unique term for each manner by which this is achieved. What I positively like about the term “powertrain” in this context is the picture it generates in my mind of a line of carriages, a sequence of matched components working in harmony to deliver passengers to their destinations.

We’re always intrigued by discussion of the parts-count delta between IC vehicles and EVs. Does this meaningfully ease the product-development and bill-of-materials processes?

In truth, it probably only serves to make the ambition of creating both a car and a car company barely feasible for a startup—rather than utterly insane!

Lucid says its proprietary lithium-ion batteries, in conjunction with company-designed drive motors, will enable a 400-mile driving range and 0-to-60 mph acceleration of around 2.5s (Image: Lucid Motors).

More seriously, this goes to the heart of how one develops a product as complex as a car in the context of a startup company. The big picture is that you don’t need all that many people and you need to scale their number progressively as the vehicle design develops. Too many people, too soon, perversely acts as a brake on progress: tentacles of premature design begin to grow, which are hard to sever and begin to limit the design. And there is no formalized product development process on Day Zero, but you can aspire to means of cooperation, ways of working, even office layout, that in a young organization can provide the structure that a formal product-development process provides in a mature company. All this is genuinely both the luxury and necessity of starting from scratch.

One of Moseley's earliest STEM inspirations.

I suppose you could say that a mature organization can make good use of a wider range of engineering skills effectively, as systems and precedents are available to enable a wider range of people to contribute. Without these protections, a small company like Lucid is more dependent on the excellence of its individual engineers.

Understanding and managing these issues well ends up being far, far more important than the parts-count difference in the vehicle between ICE and EV.

Without direct emissions, is the broad task of achieving the full range of regulatory certifications for an EV considerably less complicated?

I’m not really able to quantify where the balance of complexity between the ICE and BEV systems will eventually lie as EV technology matures. I can promise you that we’ve faced some pretty deep challenges and deployed some sophisticated methods. Whether its 3D X-ray tomography of an individual lithium ion cell as it fast-charges, or a 40-million-element model of a fine oil mist as it cools a stator end-winding, there is an enormous amount to learn and significant science and engineering in developing an understanding of EV powertrain development. Remember that there is no simple mapping between battery/fuel tank and controller-motor/engine—an EV powertrain is a very integrated and sophisticated system.

So I am prepared to admit, if it salves anyone’s pride, that it’s easier to develop a new BEV powertrain than it is a cutting-edge ICE powertrain, whether for emissions targets or other attributes. I’m not completely sure this is true—but whatever. However, the human mind is enormously creative; as this technology matures, there is plenty of scope for electric powertrains to become every bit as complex as ICE technology. We have designs under development that I can promise you will put flesh on those bones within one or two years, let alone decades.

Regarding the current state of battery development, should we expect a “mature” kind of development timeline for the foreseeable future, or a potential “game-changer” chemistry or other breakthrough?

Well, first of all there is cell chemistry. This is the starting point: transforming chemical to electrical energy. Since reading the Ladybird book of “Magnets, Bulbs and Batteries” at the age of six or seven, and tearing open a battery to extract an anode and cathode to insert in a juicy lemon, I’ve always thought of this as something like witchcraft. Fortunately, Lucid has a world-class cell-technology team that works in partnership with our cell suppliers [Samsung SDI] to develop the range of attributes that Lucid is looking for with each application.

Even in the relatively short time that I have been involved with this process, I have seen how much progress has been made in the cells available to us. It seems to me that our cell-supply partners have a range of incremental ideas available and as soon as we were able to offer consistent direction and support, they rapidly produced improvements. For example, in fast-charge resilience we have seen a 200% gain when compared with the position 12 months ago. So I have a sense that there is plenty of scope for improvement in that “mature technology” sense.

There are classes of vehicles for which lithium-ion batteries are competitive and the spread of these classes is growing. But there remain many markets which are difficult to penetrate with current or reasonably-projectable costs. However, there also is an enormous gradient of demand to pull new technologies forward—it is simply not environmentally possible to satisfy the growing demand for transportation based on the personal oxidation of hydrocarbons. So it seems very likely to me that human ingenuity and the rich varieties of available chemistries will yield disruptive cells in response to this demand gradient.

What about drive/traction motors? Lucid’s are proprietary, I understand. What might make a “bespoke” motor design better than something already developed and in production from a motor manufacturer?

In Lucid’s case, it’s never been about acquiring a bespoke design, in the sense of believing that our vehicle is so very different from any other that only a uniquely-designed motor will do. It is certainly true that we could not buy a motor like our own, but that is not the philosophical justification for developing an in-house unit.

First, we should note how closely-integrated the whole EV powertrain system must be. The technology and winding of the motor is very much linked to the current levels in the inverter and the cell technology, topology and mechanical design of the battery—which all is tightly linked to the thermal management of the vehicle. Then the mechanical design of the transmission must be integrated with that of the motor for maximum efficiency. And everything must be tightly packaged and tuned for installation in the vehicle to serve the space experience of the passengers. Finally, none of the design principles of any of these components are yet matured in their automotive applications to the point where there is anything like a consensus on their optimal features, or even an accepted genealogy of options.

So from the outset, Lucid made a strategic decision that we would design every part of this critical sequence of items—including the motors—in house. This meant investing in truly world-class experts in each and every domain and providing them with the latitude to create together a single system with every component designed with regard to performance, system compatibility and vehicle packaging.

This is the only way to achieve a best-in-class vehicle. We need to really understand from first principles how these systems excel and combine. It has given us an enormous mountain of learning to climb and there are still further Everests of knowledge beyond. But our reward is a deep understanding of what is possible and an enormous design flexibility and potential for innovation.

So describing our motor as “bespoke,” as one might label a ball gown or Italian suit, makes Lucid’s decision sound like a vanity or frivolous option. In reality, it’s an expression of our CTO’s [Peter Rawlinson] vision that our company will be technology-driven and develop a profound understanding of all the systems that define our USPs [unique selling points].

What might be the most significant challenge for an engineer with a work history in IC vehicles to switch to EV engineering?

A wide proportion of the specific engineering skills are identical: in chassis or body-in-white design. In restraints development or vehicle crash structures. EV engineering unlocks new opportunities and presents new challenges that you may not recognize and it’s all too easy to continue with outdated assumptions. But the skills themselves remain directly applicable.

It’s obviously true that some skills must morph further to fit—the HVAC or thermal team will have new system strategies to consider and different expectations from the vehicle components. It’s still the same physics and I presume that the changes would be a new source of interest.

The biggest change is really in the design of the specific components of the powertrain itself. There is clearly a huge difference in this core technology set. I really, truly believe that it is all physics and a motivated and competent engineer can pick up the challenge of moving to a new discipline even in these areas. Letting go of the security that we feel we have by virtue of our established expertise becomes the biggest challenge for all of us.

Perhaps in reality, the biggest shift required is whether to step out into the world of the new EV startups to learn this technology, or whether to bet on the growing in-house expertise of the established OEMs. That’s more a question of your appetite for risk and reward—and I am talking about the intellectual rather than the financial opportunity.

Engineers dream of creating clean-sheet development processes. Have you at Lucid been able to do something perhaps you always wanted to do at previous companies but never had the opportunity?

For me, Lucid has been a fantastic experience. I have never previously had the privilege of working with the extraordinarily-concentrated pool of talent that Lucid has acquired. There is somehow an energy and expectation peculiar to the [San Francisco] Bay Area that creates a buzz about life and work. And absolutely, seeing a product growing before your eyes is quite extraordinary. It’s enormously hard work.

But seeing the first alpha vehicle turn its wheels for the first time is an experience akin to giving birth. I really believe the Lucid Air is extraordinary in absolute terms, from any organization. There still is a great deal of work to do. But as soon as I had the opportunity to place my own deposit I took it – and I can’t wait to drive my own Lucid!