I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when Faraday Future invited me to their Gardena, California headquarters. I had heard jokes that it was located across from an animal cemetery, fitting for a company where it seemed the best automotive talent and their pet projects went to die.
It turned out to be true.
(Full Disclosure: Faraday Future invited us to their Los Angeles design office during the 2019 LA Auto Show, kindly offered an Uber coupon which I didn’t use because I couldn’t get it to work, and then we went anyway!)
Faraday Future is a startup automaker that debuted in 2015, promising a billion-dollar factory, electric supercar, and full autonomous driving technology. Its second concept, the FF 91, is slated to be an all-electric, semi-autonomous crossover limousine, but its road to production has stalled since its introduction.
For awhile, the company ran on hype and plenty of investment through its founder, Chinese billionaire Jia Yueting, also known as “YT.”
But starting in late 2016, the company has experienced an unprecedented series of setbacks, including cash shortages, a mass exodus of employees, cancelled plans for that billion-dollar factory, furloughs, layoffs, flirting with bankruptcy, and investigations from the Chinese government that prevent Jia from returning to his home country.
He stepped down as CEO of Faraday Future in September of 2019 and then filed for personal bankruptcy in October, and was replaced by Carsten Breitfeld—who left Byton, his own EV startup, after the Chinese government became involved in the leadership of the company.
I’ve toured factories and headquarters before. It’s usually a very carefully orchestrated public relations presentation where you talk to the smartest people available, see the most-finished, or at least most-presentable projects, and everyone seems to act like there’s a highly trained sniper waiting just out of sight to take them out should they deviate from the course.
For Faraday, I was expecting an “I’m a real boy” thing, and that’s exactly what I got.
One of the first people I was interested to meet was CEO Carsten Breitfeld, one of the former BMW executives responsible for launching the German automaker’s i-series of hybrid and electric vehicles. What’s funny is that Faraday Future has run through so much talent over the years that Breitfeld isn’t even the first BMW i executive to move over to the startup. One of FF’s founding execs was designer Richard Kim, credited for the BMW i3 and i8.
But the irony is Kim left Faraday Future in 2017, when Breitfeld was just starting to launch his own EV startup. One wonders how things may have been different if all of the people with shared experience successfully launching an EV company had worked under the same roof at the same time.
Regardless, entering the studio feels like walking into purgatory. It’s a surprisingly large building with tall ceilings that the company had sold to a real estate firm back in March of 2019, which then rented the building back out to Faraday during one of its many critical financial struggles.
The bright fluorescent light bounces off of the white floors and walls. The only pop of color comes from a brown FF 91 prototype and the miniature clay models in the back of the room. One is a sedan design, flanked by more crossover concepts.
And when thinking about all of the automotive and technological experience that has walked through this studio, it is somewhat of a literal purgatory. Especially for those still lingering behind, hoping for financial security. Hoping, one day, cars will start to sell and the engineers and designers can move on to projects of their own, for few of them were around in the early development of the FF 91.
It’s immediately clear that Faraday Future has burned through more than money. A lot of people have walked in, and then out of these doors. People in various roles, with lots of respectable expertise and confidence in what they were doing, just to have the one person at the top continually fuck it up.
Speaking to Ron Polonski, Faraday’s head of design, it’s seems like the company has been almost purely focused on pushing the boundaries of practical automotive design. In his time working for Tesla up until the rollout of the Tesla Model 3, Polonski said it was clear Tesla’s objective had become increasing sales volume, no longer exploring an exciting new future.
But at the same time, Polonski’s role at Faraday is now designing the follow-up to the FF 91, a smaller, more affordable electric crossover labeled the FF 81 intended for mass production, and the vehicles after that will follow the same numerical nomenclature. Polosnki wouldn’t confirm what else was getting worked on, but my mind wonders to that table-top model of a very attractive sedan that teased me from the back of the studio.
Looking at an early design prototype for the FF 81, which I’m not allowed to show you, it looks as simple as a “baby FF 91,” but the development behind the next vehicle is much more involved than that. Polonski inherited the FF 91 design, but with the 81, he’s focused on designing it interior-first, with innovation in the “user interaction” with the car. But the FF 71 will supposedly take it even further.
“Some of the things we’re doing right now with FF 71,” he teased without any indication of what sort of vehicle it might be, “is getting us traction with even other... companies. Possibly. It’s looking very interesting.” He was then promptly cut off by the director of public relations.
Polonski bragged that Faraday’s gradual tightening of the belt has led to an Apple-campus effect, where the employees from various teams are encouraged to chime in on every element of the vehicle’s design, even including the (eventual) retail experience of buying the car.
He said this also helps avoid mistakes that Faraday can’t afford to make, like ensuring you can still see the screen in direct sunlight with the glass roof, or making sure enough cupholders are included in the final design. “I’ve got to get it done, I’ve got to be creative on the fly, I’ve got to make things work. We can not make those kind of mistakes. If we do, we pay for it,” he told me.
But at the same time, Faraday’s forced stoppages due to the constantly shifting security of the company has ironically made for a much more refined product off the line.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Polonski sighed. “What’s great about the opportunity of a stop is really digging deep into every little part and every little decision that we’ve made. We’ve been able to cost cut in places you’d never think of, because, when Tesla was going at speed, you’d miss things. We’ve been going at speed so we missed things. Now we’ve picked things up and we’re really drilling over whether we’re ready. It’s been a great kind of stop and reflection, and we’ll have time for testing, and we’ll have a better product. People can point and say ‘they’re going to fail’ or whatever, but sitting here and waiting and dealing with all of this has made us all a stronger person.”
He also appreciates the opportunity to react and respond to recent competition from traditional automakers like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and Ford with changes to the FF 91 and ensuring the FF 81 and other future models stay a step ahead. To Polonski, the competition is “missing the point.”
“As our kids are growing up, they will not be choosing certain brands that have been around forever. The space will change. It’s all a knee-jerk reaction. Why haven’t [these companies] challenged what a vehicle should be?”
On paper, the FF 91—Faraday Future’s first real product, at least almost—has what it needs to be a compelling competitor to the Tesla Model X, and should blow Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Jaguar, and everyone else competing in the electric crossover segment out of the water.
Back when the FF 91 was supposed to enter production before the company imploded at the end of 2018, five versions of the model were supposedly planned; two with about 716 horsepower (two motors rated at an output of 534 kW), and three with 1,074 HP (two or three motors rated at an output of 801 kW), all with all-wheel drive, according to VIN information submitted to NHTSA. Faraday previously claimed the FF 91 would be available with up to 1,089 HP.
Here’s a mockup of what the car should roughly look like in production form:
And here’s a prototype in development with pre-production taillights and headlights. You can also see both in our video.
In person, the vehicle is large. Its design reminds me of a concept from the 1990s or 2000s era of Chrysler, just with a lot of the modern “concept car” flourishes we’ve come to expect these days.
Using a phone app developed by the company, you can use your connected phone’s voice prompts to do stuff like ask to open the doors, or open the rear hatch.
A company rep explained to me a series of lights integrated into the body surfacing could be customized to flash as turn indicators, communicate other driving intentions with the car’s planned semi-autonomous driving capabilities, or do other tricks like flash to communicate to someone in a pickup line where the car is located, as if this huge futuristic blob wouldn’t stand out in a crowd already.
The benefit of this large size for the FF 91, and electric vehicles in general, is that any gain in size should directly translate into more interior space, and it does indeed in this case.
Up front, the driver and passenger are confronted with three different screens. One in front of the driver displays vehicle information, like speed, range, etc., a pivoting screen in the middle controls the connectivity and infotainment of the car, and a third screen directly in front of the passenger is utilized for connected entertainment.
As shown in our video, a phone application developed by Faraday Future allows the passenger to mirror their phone, either Android or Apple with more support for other systems supposedly in development. The passenger can pick up where they left off on the shows they’ve been watching, etc.
The layout of the screens on the dashboard is specifically designed to prevent the driver from being able to distractedly look over and see the entertainment screen for the passenger.
It’s also all designed to be upgradable as the screen and systems technology advances. Faraday plans to be able to swap out the screens and systems to adapt to new regulations, adapt to changes in the car’s self-driving capabilities as that technology progresses, and keep the vehicle technologically relevant.
But where the FF 91 really shines is in the back seat. This car is tailor made for the Chinese market, where it’s very common for luxury vehicle owners to be driven around, rather than drive their own vehicles.
Early production models of the FF 91 will feature two reclining seats in the back, but a three-seater bench will be available later in the production run. The two-seat option is incredibly luxurious though, reclining almost entirely flat with raising support for the legs and thighs, but a comfortable position to watch the giant 27-inch drop-down screen that features the rear entertainment.
Again, this massive screen is designed for use with the passenger’s Faraday app that’s been previously set up, which mirror’s the person’s phone and allows you to browse the web or watch anything you might on your phone, except big. We watched a Jason Drives Jalopnik video straight from the web browser as a test.
While some journalists have had a chance to drive a prototype of the FF 91, we weren’t so lucky. But we did get a ride-along drive with a development driver, Ron Dizon, who’s been working on the car from the beginning—a shocking level of loyalty considering what the company has been through.
As a performance electric crossover, the FF 91 does not disappoint. The company does have real cars, and they can go really fast. Acceleration is instant, the noise is a raw whine of the mechanics of the motors whirring at the corners of the car.
You can throw this massive blob into a corner at speed and it doesn’t feel like the body is going to separate from the chassis. Everything stays fairly level and planted, and the seat support picks up in the small margin where the platform reaches its limits.
The FF 91 fits competitively in the new lineup of unparalleled performance only an EV can offer, and the ride experience is enough to convince you that through all of the financial trouble, Faraday has somehow remained focused on getting the dynamics of the car right. The car itself is the biggest indicator that the company isn’t the joke we all sometimes assume it is.
Breitfeld told me that the FF 91 has been sitting near-ready for production for over a year and a half. He’s still confident they’ll go into production by September of this year, but the company has been saying that the FF 91 has been a year or so away from production since the beginning of 2017. Faraday Future still says it really wants to disrupt the future world of mobility, it just needs hundreds of millions of dollars of new investment to see it through.
But now, even the U.S. Department of Justice has gotten involved in the quagmire, claiming the founder was “dishonest” in his bankruptcy filings—yet another setback that’s likely to delay any new investment until Jia either steps aside, or his bankruptcy case comes to an end. But if investment comes, the ground team at Faraday Future seems confident it’ll be off to the races.
A lot of traditional automakers would kill to have an EV program with the level of development and interior technology that Faraday is offering. The trouble now is just finding a way to sell it to the world—the biggest test for a startup, and after half a decade, one that Faraday may frustratingly still not be able to pass.