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Faraday Future: Tesla Competitor or Just an Also-Ran?

Paul A. Eisenstein

It's designed to be clean, safe — and blisteringly fast. It will not only keep you in touch with the world, but it can learn just what you like to watch or listen to. It is the Faraday Future FF91, and the folks who have designed it would you prefer you think of it as a "new species," and not just another car.

The battery-electric crossover-utility vehicle made its debut at CES — formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show — in Las Vegas on Tuesday night, and Faraday promises to have the autonomous model in production by 2018. In fact, it has now opened up its online order bank allowing potential buyers to plunk down $5,000 deposits.

But those interested in the Faraday FF91 might be given a note of caution. The Chinese-funded, California-based start-up has run into a series of problems in recent months, a financial shortfall even forcing a temporary halt to construction of the sprawling assembly plant Faraday is putting up amidst the desert scrub on the north side of Las Vegas.

Despite such concerns, the mood was decidedly upbeat at the Pavilions at Las Vegas Market, the venue for the FF91 unveiling that drew thousands of journalists, Faraday employees, and "VIPs." The event came just a year after the company showed off a supercar concept vehicle at CES, promising to be back with a production model.

Related: Faraday Reveals Futuristic New Electric Car

That vehicle, the FF91, "doesn't require any sacrifice," declared Pete Savagian, Faraday's director of propulsion engineering. "Never has it been more convenient to drive completely electric."

The Car That 'Knows' You

Nor has driving ever been quite like what Faraday foresees. The FF91 is envisioned as much as a home away from home, with all the high-tech gadgets you could imagine. There are numerous high-definition screens inside the cabin, and with its redundant antennas and Wi-Fi, the car should be capable of keeping its occupants connected and entertained anywhere they go.

The FF91 will also have the ability to recognize, respond and adapt to its driver and passengers. Sensors will adjust vehicle settings, turn on music or videos, and otherwise act like a virtual assistant.

"It is the car that knows you, the car that adapts to you," said Hong Bae, director of self-driving and other onboard technologies.

Looking like it had rolled off the set of a science fiction movie, the FF91's design reflects the many functions it has been charged with performing. A variety of "active aero" body features — the vehicle raises or lowers automatically, for example — help to cheat the wind. Even modest improvements in aerodynamics, explained design chief Richard Kim, "can increase your range by 12 miles."

So-called "range anxiety" is something Faraday is aiming to banish. With a massive, 130 kilowatt-hour battery pack — 30 percent larger than the biggest offered by rival Tesla Motors — the FF91 promises to get 378 miles per charge using the EPA test, though it could reach nearly 500 miles at a steady 55 mph, according to Savagian.

Billionaire Faraday backer YT Jia with Nick Sampson, Senior Vice President of R&D. Paul A. Eisenstein

Faster than a Ferrari

Improving aerodynamics also boosts performance, and Faraday claims that independent tests show the 1,050-horsepower FF91 will be the world's fastest production vehicle, launching from 0 to 60 in a neck-snapping 2.39 seconds — several tenths faster than the most powerful Ferrari, the 488 GTB.

One of the most notable visual details on the FF91 is the glowing orb that appears to be mounted in the center of the hood. It's a LIDAR, or 3D laser, unit, one of 36 different sensors built into the Faraday battery-car that make it possible to operate hands-free and even without a driver. During the two-hour presentation, Faraday showed how the FF91 could let out its occupants and then, with a tap of a smartphone app, head off on its own to find a parking spot.

Related: Paris Motor Show Is All About Electric

While that demonstration went off without a hitch, another almost failed as YT Jia, the Chinese billionaire backing Faraday, tried to get the car to drive itself onto the stage for photographers. It took a technician a moment to climb into the car and correct a few settings before it obeyed.

(It was a painfully similar experience to what happened to Jia several months ago when he tried to show off an autonomous vehicle developed by another company he is funding. The LeEco LeSEE stubbornly refused to move, forcing the Chinese entrepreneur to run onto the stage on his own during a San Francisco event.)

Internal Combustion

The momentary holdup was little more than a hiccup, however, compared to other setbacks Faraday has experienced of late. Just last week, it was revealed that Ding Lei, the unofficial CEO for the company — which has no formal chief executive — had resigned. That followed the departure of a number of other high- and mid-level managers and executives, including chief brand officer Marco Mattiacci, and product marketing chief Joerg Sommer.

Faraday has meanwhile been sued for unpaid bills by a handful of suppliers and is struggling to pay others, though a senior company insider, asking not to be identified by name, said that, "We're beginning to pay the bills" as new financing comes in. That will be critical, as a cash shortfall forced Faraday to halt work on the $1 billion assembly plant it is building in the desert north of Las Vegas.

Admitting there have been some rough moments, Nick Sampson, Faraday's Senior Vice President of R&D, told the audience, "We will persist," later telling reporters that work on the Nevada factory will resume "very soon."

Even if it does, there are plenty of skeptics who question how the company will be able to get it completed, checked out and in production in time to meet an admittedly aggressive production target. But Faraday officials insist they will come through and, in the process, "We will reformat the future," promised Sampson.