At Faraday Future’s facility in Southern California, the press walked around while a designer scraped a physical clay car model and workers tinkered on the manufacturing floor.
It was a show for the media by remaining employees after one of the auto industry’s most spectacular failures.
Were they helping build something special or putting in work for a future that may never come?
“It’s probably a little late,” said Rohan Williamson, professor of finance at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, about FF’s prospects. “The vehicle is nice. They have a unique approach. But I’m not sure if enough investors can get enough capital to get it done to go to the mass production model, which is at least three or four years down the road.”
Faraday Future’s plan for success involves producing its flagship, ultra high-end, $150k-$200k model, the FF91, by fall 2020. Then, it plans to release a mid-luxury model (FF81), and eventually, something along the lines of the more affordable Tesla Model 3. Getting the FF91 out by next fall is critically important in an industry that experts say is about to be flooded with luxury EVs in the next year.
“Time isn’t on their side,” Karl Brauer, the executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book, told Mashable. “It’s not just that they need to get the money. They need to get a product they can mass produce on the road immediately.”
The FF team hasn’t thrown in the towel. Instead, they say they have been refining their product.
“Since the Evergrande stuff, this is what we’ve been doing,” Ron Polonski, FF’s head of design, said while showing off an interior model of a new car concept, the FF81. “We haven’t been sitting idle.”
The “Evergrande stuff” refers to Faraday Future’s co-founder Jia Yueting (also known as YT) leading the company as it burned through $800 million of a $2 billion investment from Evergrande, FF’s Chinese investor. That led to international court cases, layoffs and furloughs, production delays, debt and sold-off factory land; a bitter reality for a company that was once trumpeted as a serious Tesla competitor.
To turn things around, YT stepped down as CEO (marooned in a California mansion to avoid his Chinese debtors), though he is still involved with the company. FF replaced him with an earnest and sharp-dressed EV industry veteran, Carsten Breitfeld, who started in early September.
“If you look back, you will see only bad news,” Breitfeld told reporters at an event last week. “I would like to change your perspective on this company.”
Instead of financial embarrassment and wasted potential, the story Breitfeld wants to tell is of a company that is production ready for a future where cars are more important as tech platforms than mechanical vehicles, and fleets comprise a “shared mobility” economy (think: you don’t own a car, you subscribe to an autonomous car service).
Other companies, including Tesla, have articulated this future as well. But Faraday says its focus on luxury, paired with technology, gives it an edge.
“We’ve got ultra-luxury brands, and we’ve got high-tech, but we haven’t really seen the high-tech ultra-luxury brand,” Brauer said. “Combining those two is smart, it’s a part of the market that hasn’t been addressed yet.”
If Faraday can compete in this new economy, it says its fleets could include the FF91, the FF81, a new more affordable coupe based on its 2.0 platform, and eventually, sports cars, yachts, and helicopters.
On the design and manufacturing floor, it’s spent the last year taking models from beta to gamma, where 93 or 80 percent (depending who you ask) of the car is built with line production tools, as opposed to being put together by hand. FF emphasized that point, since it means it’s closer to producing cars, as opposed to just dreaming them up.
The plan is to include an AI assistant capable of handling sophisticated queries like (as the company demoed), “show me a cafe in Santa Monica that’s highly rated with outdoor seating.” The car runs on a customized Android OS, and FF said that it has worked with technology partners on the AI and other “infotainment” offerings in the car, but declined to name them. (It’s planning to announce that at a later date).
The design and manufacturing teams also changed the consoles and the seats, which Polonski said needed to be retooled to avoid production snags. Ideally, the extra planning would result in a more seamless production experience, as opposed to Tesla’s nightmare. Again and again, executives stressed how close the company was to being able to produce the cars (if only it had the cash).
I asked Mark Cuyler, the head of manufacturing, what needs to happen in the next year to make the fall 2020 deadline for FF91 customer handoffs. He said it should take about three months to repair the broken relationships with suppliers (who were burned before). Of course, it will then have to get the factory up and running.
Aside from that, it will be mostly about lining up cash; the company is currently living on $225 million as part of a restructuring deal announced in May led by Birch Lake Partners. That money is just a holdover. To fund production, Breitfeld said that they were talking to “big tech companies,” and others, but wouldn’t disclose any other details about potential investors.
The company announced that it has reduced the amount it needs to produce the FF91 from $2 billion to $850 million. But where that number comes from is a bit of a mystery to experts.
“It sounds low to me,” Williamson said. “I’m not sure what production technology they have that would drive it down that far to be able to produce cars in scale to generate the cash flow.”
“The first vehicle needs to be basically flawless.”
FF’s ability to pull off the FF91 is critically important for the company. Even if few buyers line up for the $200K ultra-luxury vehicle from the new kid on the block, Brauer stressed that FF91 production is more of a “proof of concept” to show that FF is capable of making a special product in the first place.
“The first vehicle needs to be basically flawless,” Williamson said. “It has to get a lot of buzz. And then attract the investors, and that’s a tall order. But that’s what success will require: for the FF91 to be truly special.”
Even if FF can pull it off, with EV startups and legacy car companies alike putting out impressive electric cars and signing lucrative deals with tech companies, is there still room for Faraday Future? Why should we care about a company that has fumbled the football for four years?
Breitfeld and team’s argument hinges on the idea that they are close, they have a vision for the future, and they’re ready to execute — even if that means Breitfeld dragging the car off of the production floor himself.
At the end of the visit, Breitfeld bid me farewell, and I told him I wished him luck; it was clear he had a passionate team of believers behind him.
“We can win,” Breitfeld told me. “If we have an attitude of ‘we cannot fail,’ then we cannot fail.”
That, strictly speaking, is not true; a good attitude is no replacement for cash. Still, Faraday Future hopes to capture the imaginations of investors, and finally get its cars on the road.