A quick spin in the 1,050-horsepower electric car that can park itself.
– Las Vegas, Nevada
Faraday Future senior vice president of research and development Nick Sampson says his company could have shown off the FF 91 at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show – the majority of the exterior design was already fixed by January 2016. But FF didn’t want to show a car too long before it was ready for production, for risk of overpromising to customers and the media.
Now, though, we’re only a little more than a year from when Sampson hopes the FF 91 will start rolling off the assembly line in Nevada at a factory that is still under construction. I’m at a huge hangar north of the Las Vegas Strip to see two prototypes of the all-electric crossover in action to get a sense for what those cars will be like when they do eventually launch.
The first demonstration is of the FF 91’s valet-parking party trick. Pull up to your home, office, or restaurant, hop out, and the car will scurry off to find an open spot on its own. It’s what the Society of Automotive Engineers rules classify as a Level 4 autonomous system, so it can operate totally independent of a driver.
“Our strategy is to focus our attention and resources on something nobody else has, which is Level 4 autonomous driving,” says Hong Bae, Faraday Future’s director of advanced driver assist systems and self-driving. “Start the feature and you walk away, we take care of everything.”
The inside of the prototype car is sparse aside from a steering wheel, some seats, and rows of toggle switches and displays used for diagnostic work – it’s an early prototype, after all. But the demonstration works flawlessly. An engineer uses his smartphone to command the car to park itself, then sits back and takes his hands off the wheel. The FF 91 slowly cruises around the parking lot until it locates an empty spot, drives past it, and does a little three-point turn to back into the space.
In the production car, owners will use their smartphone app to call the car to their location, like an ultra-localized Uber, or even schedule a pickup time and location in advance.
That reverse-parking maneuver is deliberate for two reasons, says Faraday’s Paul Theodosis. First, the car drives past the empty space first so as many of its 36 external sensors as possible can check whether the spot is empty, and so the rear camera can keep the car centered within the painted lines. It’s also critical for exiting the spot safely. A 3D LIDAR sensor mounted on the hood, which has a more than 180-degree view out the front of the car, is used to carefully evaluate when the coast is clear to exit the spot. In the production car, owners will use their smartphone app to call the car to their location, like an ultra-localized Uber, or even schedule a pickup time and location in advance.
There are, of course, a few catches. If the car can’t find an empty spot, it’ll keep searching pretty much indefinitely, Bae says. The FF 91 might pull over for a few minutes to wait, then go hunt again; a display on the driver’s B-pillar will indicate the car’s valet-parking status and allow passersby to ask the car to move if it’s double-parked.
“If there are other people who need to get out of the parking spot, but if they are blocked, we will have mechanisms for those people to let our vehicle know that we need to move back and forth a little,” Bae says.
Faraday’s car also cannot perform its valet-parking stunt just anywhere. It needs a careful map of the boundaries of the lot so it doesn’t inadvertently wander too far. While giving no exact details, Faraday says it has its own way of mapping parking lots in the future; it likely involves combining GPS map data with sensor data detected by cars driving in the real world.
“We can look at where you want the feature and hopefully go through an approval feature,” Bae says. “We don’t need to send somebody out there to drive around like maybe some other companies would do.”
Other semi-autonomous features will be limited at launch. There will be adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist, but probably no Autopilot-like hands-off highway driving. Those functions could be downloaded later as a software update, but for now Faraday engineers say they wanted to focus on the automatic parking function.
“We can get these very high acceleration rates and not have the tires break loose.”
Next up is a demonstration of the car’s dynamic performance, albeit in the rather limited confines of an indoor “test track” on a concrete floor inside a hangar. The FF 91 uses three identical electric motors, each rated for 350 horsepower (261 kilowatts), with one driving the front axle and two at the rear. Future models could have fewer motors and, thus, less power, says Peter Savagian, Faraday Future’s vice president of propulsion engineering. And because the chassis is modular, these variants could all be built on the same assembly line.
“We could make any number of vehicles in this structure,” he says. “We could make two-motor versions, we possibly could make a one-motor version, we could make versions with less sophisticated suspensions than these and with smaller wheels and tires.”
This flagship 1,050-hp version of the FF 91 that I’m riding in is seriously quick off the line. With barely any squeal from the 22-inch all-season tires, the car leaps away and pulls with the ferocious consistency really only possible from electric motors. The company claims a sprint to 60 miles per hour takes just 2.39 seconds, and I’m inclined to believe it from the way the car pins me back against my seat. Savagian credits those rapid launches, in part, to the ultra-fast traction control used to manipulate the electric motors’ torque; it moderates power delivery 50 times per second, about 10 times faster than other traction-control systems he worked on in his past work with General Motors’ electric cars, thanks to the rapid response times of the electric motors.
“We can get these very high acceleration rates and not have the tires break loose,” he says.
Of course, not every Faraday Future car will be quite so quick: “We’ll probably have lower-power versions of the car because not everyone needs that power.”
The handling demonstration in the FF 91 is tougher to evaluate, but it’s clear that with rear-wheel steering and an adaptive air suspension, the big, heavy FF 91 turns in sharply and exhibits great body control through aggressive maneuvers. The company’s test driver gets the tires howling through rapid left-right transitions, and the car appears to have a big reserve of grip.
Curb weight is still an unknown. The FF 91’s Variable Platform Architecture (VPA) chassis and the body are made almost entirely from aluminum, with riveting, welding, and adhesives used to keep it all together. But the huge 130-kilowatt-hour battery pack adds a lot of heft. No official numbers are available yet, but when pushed, Savagian says the FF 91 will probably be pretty close in mass to the Bentley Bentayga luxury crossover or the Tesla Model X, which is the FF 91’s only real direct competitor. Those both tip the scales at over 5,000 pounds. Sampson says that the VPA is designed to accommodate carbon fiber components in the future, which would shed a bit more weight.
This range-topping FF 91 will do 378 miles on a charge in EPA testing, Faraday promises.
The VPA’s wheelbase is dependent on its battery size; the battery pack in the FF 91 consists of six strings of six batteries, arranged across the width of the car. To build a shorter car, Faraday Future would simply remove one string of batteries, though that would also reduce the battery capacity and thus driving range. Changing the track and body widths is possible, too, but Savagian says the width of the battery strings preclude narrowing the chassis.
“A smaller car like that doesn’t need the same load-carrying capacity, we could go to a slightly different component set for the suspension,” he says.
Other variations that would be possible for future Faraday Future vehicles include having simpler suspension setups than this car’s air suspension, or deleting the rear-wheel steering, to make more affordable cars, says Savagian. And, obviously, other versions might have fewer motors or a smaller battery pack to balance performance, driving range, and so on. This range-topping FF 91 will do 378 miles on a charge in EPA testing, Faraday promises.
It remains unclear when we’ll see and hear more about Faraday Future. Sampson was noncommittal about which auto shows his company will attend in the future – Detroit is never going to happen because FF is a better fit at tech-focused CES, he says – but promises there’s much more news to come. We still haven’t seen or learned much about the FF 91’s interior, for instance.
Nor do we know how much the luxurious electric crossover will cost (we've heard rumors of $200,000), nor exactly when the factory will be completed, nor when production will begin. For now, though, a brief ride in prototypes proves there is at least plenty of credible engineering going on behind the scenes.
Photos: Jake Holmes / Motor1.com