Will a Tesla rival win the race to offer self-driving cars?

Upstart Lucid Motors hopes to manufacture an electric vehicle with full autonomous driving by late 2018, but analysts aren't sure how many consumers will react. 

Alexandria Sage/Reuters
California-based Lucid Motors, formerly named Atieva, unveiled a prototype of a luxury sedan, the Lucid Air, at its unveiling in Fremont, Calif., Dec. 14, 2016. The electric vehicle maker hopes to start manufacturing a fully autonomous car by 2018.

An upstart electric carmaker plans to release by late 2018 a luxury sedan capable of reaching 400 miles on a single charge and driving itself.

California-based Lucid Motors and its first high-end electric vehicle, the Air, has drawn comparisons to Tesla and its Model S, which boasts 330 miles on a single charge and an Autopilot semi-autonomous driving system. But Lucid executives see themselves in competition with all the top luxury automakers, including Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

Indeed, if Lucid starts to build its fully autonomous cars by 2018, it could be the first carmaker to offer a self-driving car to consumers. Tesla has also promised full autonomy in its cars by 2017. But analysts have doubted that the technology will actually be ready by then.

Perhaps more important, they also wonder how many customers will want to be the sole owners of such vehicles.

“To really move the needle, I think you’re going to [have to] talk about how your electrified vehicle will fit into a future concept of mobility, whether it’s part-time ownership or part of a ride-sharing fleet,” Edmunds senior analyst Jessica Caldwell told The Washington Post.

The Lucid Air, which executives told Reuters will be followed by luxury crossovers starting in 2020, is a streamlined, sunlit “private jet on four wheels,” Lucid chief technology officer Peter Rawlinson told reporters last week, according to USA Today.

The all-electric sedan is expected to cost around $100,000, while a higher-end Launch Edition would come in at $160,000. Mr. Rawlinson promised both vehicles will be fully electric and allow for completely autonomous driving.

“We’re very forwarding looking in that respect,” he said. “We believe we’ve got the most likely bases all covered.”

The vehicles will be shipped with sensors, cameras, radar, and LIDAR needed for semi-autonomy, with full autonomy coming later through over-the-air updates, according to Engadget.

Tesla already offers semi-autonomous driving through its Autopilot system, with a number of other carmakers testing full autonomy. But many of those tests on public roads are being conducted for the purpose of ride-hailing. nuTonomy, a startup with offices in Massachusetts and Singapore, launched the first public trials of a self-driving taxi service in the Asian country earlier this year. Uber followed with public tests in Pittsburgh this fall and San Francisco last week. (The California Department of Motor Vehicles ordered the company to cease-and-desist its San Francisco tests because it says Uber lacks the proper permits.) Tesla has also laid the groundwork for starting a ride-hailing service, according to media reports from October.

Lucid Motors, then, could stand apart both in terms of the market it's aiming for and when the technology will be available to consumers. In fact, most car executives expect autonomous vehicles to not be available until at least 2020. Even Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, doesn’t expect regulatory approval for self-driving cars to come until at least 2019, he told the Danish newspaper Borsen. 

That’s because there is a patchwork of regulations across the US and Europe for testing of self-driving cars. In the US, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is expected to release guidelines on how to deploy semi-and- fully autonomous technology, according to Recode. But Recode, in its timeline of driverless car rollouts, indicated that semi-autonomous features – but not full autonomy – will become the norm by 2020.

Cars equipped with semi-autonomous features will be able to navigate through traffic lights and intersections and stop-and-go traffic – which means they can leave highways and start operating on surface roads that don't have pedestrians,” writes Recode.

Recode doesn’t expect full autonomy to become the norm until later that decade. 

This report contains material from Reuters. 

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