It looks a little like the Batmobile, and in theory, it drives like one: A new concept electric car unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show can supposedly go 200 mph (though that’s just theoretical: the concept car can’t actually drive). But the most interesting part of the design isn’t visible–it’s how it might change the way we power and think about our vehicles in the future.
Faraday Future, the startup behind the race car, wants to change how electric cars are made–and how people use cars in general. Founded in 2014 and backed by the Chinese billionaire Jia Yueting, founder of a digital video company, the startup now has 400 employees racing to redesign the electric car.
Inside the cars, there’s no longer a single battery. “The repair and replacement of that giant battery can be cumbersome and expensive,” says Ezekiel Wheeler, product and technology communication specialist at Faraday Future. Instead, the company uses a string of batteries arranged in a Kit-Kat like shape, which can quickly be lengthened or shortened in a new car design.
“It’s like a sophisticated Lego piece that you can add and remove to achieve certain vehicle requirements,” Wheeler says. That means multiple different cars can be designed and come to market in a much shorter time. It also makes batteries much simpler and cheaper to replace.
“It’s like the modern Christmas tree light–if one light goes out, the rest of the lights can stay on,” he says (he is good with analogies). “The same principles apply to the string technology. We can isolate which module is not functioning and replace that one, as opposed to replacing the entire battery cell.”
The concept car–like the actual cars, which will soon be built in Faraday’s new billion-dollar factory under construction in Vegas–is also fully connected. Your smartphone fits directly into the steering wheel, so you can use it for navigation, or, maybe, read emails when you flip into autonomous mode. When you enter the car, it automatically knows all of your preferences, and keeps learning over time.
“Think of your phone: it actually gains value the longer you have it,” says chief designer Richard Kim. “You store more music, you store more podcasts, you have more information in there. If you lose your phone, your life is over. Cars are the opposite–you drive them off the lot and there goes 10%-20% of the value. So how can we add value to your car, how can it improve as you use it?”
The company is also considering reinventing how cars are sold, offering people subscriptions instead of cars that they own. Ultimately, as the cars become fully autonomous, you might call one up on your phone, Uber-like, and let it drive to you when you need it.
The goal is to make an electric car that’s as smart as possible, and as responsive as possible to users’ needs. “If you’ve visited Home Depot recently, you’ll see that basically devices and electronics are going in a direction of pure intelligence,” says Kim. “They know your needs, they’re there when you need them, they’re in the background when you don’t need it. It seems that everything is becoming so smart but the car is just always behind. That’s our challenge.”
It’s not a small challenge, and it isn’t clear exactly when it will happen; the concept car at CES isn’t drivable. But the company’s designers–poached from places like Tesla, BMW, and SpaceX–are currently working on multiple cars, simultaneously. An all-digital design process, along with the car’s modular battery platform, means they can work quickly.
“It’s incredible how much technology has helped us in our process,” says Kim. “The typical design process is fairly old-school; it hasn’t changed in a long time. Our 100% digital process is really exciting. If we’re trying to create the most progressive and futuristic product, then we should use the most progressive and futuristic software and tools.”
The new factory should be up and running later this year, and though they wouldn’t name a date, the team says cars will come to market “very soon.” It’s an obvious competitor for Tesla, though Faraday sees Elon Musk’s company as more as a partner in a fight against the traditional car industry.
“Tesla pretty much laid the groundwork for electric vehicles to come to mass market and be accepted, and have a loyal fan base, and demand new products in the marketplace, which is forcing the change in a lot of the 100+ year old establishments that are out there,” says Wheeler. “I think as far as competition is concerned, we see it as a welcome camaraderie. It’s open source–okay , Tesla, you keep doing your thing, we’re going to do our thing.”