How Rolls-Royce built its first electric car, the Spectre

One of the seven wonders of the automotive world is the Rolls-Royce V12 engine. It's quiet, incredibly powerful and the acceleration is so smooth it's like an electric car, especially compared to the obvious gear changes that happen in most combustion engine vehicles. Rolls-Royce drivers buy the British super-luxury cars for the ethereal ride, not for the “look at me” roar that comes from a Lamborghini, Ferrari or Aston Martin.

And now Rolls-Royce is delivering its signature magic carpet ride with a fully electric powertrain with the brand's first electric car, the Spectre. The brand calls it 'waftability', which compensates for the car's inertia to create the feeling of flying or floating. With a low center of gravity, helped in part by a well-crafted layer cake platform, the Specter could ruin you for all other EVs if you take it for a spin.

This is how the legendary car manufacturer created an EV worthy of its heritage.

The Specter is Rolls-Royce's first fully electric vehicle. Image: Rolls-Royce

Foreshadowing the EV future

While it may seem incongruous that Rolls-Royce could build an electric car that evokes the same feelings as its gasoline-powered predecessors, the truth is that electric vehicles have been in the brand's DNA all along. More than a century ago, founder Charles Rolls famously predicted the future importance of electric powertrains; his business partner Sir Henry Royce was an electrical engineer by profession.

It was important for the Specter that this was “a first Rolls-Royce and a second electric car”, the executives emphasized. The EV starts with a proprietary aluminum spaceframe platform that hinges at four fixed points, one at each corner. A 'layer cake' approach gives the Specter a low drag coefficient, which has a positive impact on overall aerodynamics and range.

Beneath your feet is the interior soft, carpeted floor, which sits on top of the wiring and climate control pipes. Below that is a flat battery pack that weighs more than 1,500 pounds, and is encased in a smooth battery bottom case. Even with all those layers, the Specter is only two inches higher than the gas-powered Rolls-Royce Phantom coupe. That is an achievement in itself.

Photo electric vehicles
Images: Kristin Shaw/PopSci

“As we entered this transition into the future, we chose a super coupe,” said Martin Fritsches, president of Rolls-Royce North America. “The dimensions and design of the Specter are the spiritual successor to the Phantom coupe. We wanted an emotional and attractive model to show the future of Rolls-Royce.”

Squeezing electrical components into a two-door car

This is a long, sleek car that has the same amount of feet from front to back as a huge GMC Hummer EV: 18 feet. The 102 kilowatt-hour, 400-volt battery pack is derived from its parent company, the BMW Group, which charges more slowly than EVs from Kia and Hyundai's 800-volt version.

On the other hand, the higher tension system would have added more weight and complexity, which would have affected performance and weight distribution. Squeezing the components into a two-door model was a challenge for the engineering team, but it made sense for the brand.

“It could have been easy for us to electrify an SUV or a sedan,” says Dr. Mihiar Ayoubi, the chief engineer who launched the Specter and now senior vice president of the BMW Group. “But it is a challenge to deliver such a beautiful coupe silhouette.”

The Specter has a 23-inch wheel option, which results in slightly less range than the 22-inch wheels. It also features the largest touring car doors (which open at the front rather than the rear) in the Rolls-Royce range, measuring 1.5 meters or 4.92 feet. The doors open approximately 90 degrees, allowing easy entry and exit of all four seats, and provide access to the signature umbrellas embedded in the frame.

Photo electric vehicles

In real time: highway driving

On a busy Friday afternoon, traversing Interstate 35 between Dallas and Austin, Texas, is unpredictable. For one-pedal driving, the Specter features regenerative braking, which the brand calls 'B-mode' and is activated via the steering wheel-mounted gear lever.

Rolls-Royce calls it brake recuperation, not regeneration, and it takes some practice to use it smoothly in stop-and-go traffic, just like any other EV braking function. The adaptive cruise control is even better, automatically adapting to the traffic in front of the car using cameras and sensors to slow down and accelerate accordingly.

When rolling along at high speed, the Specter lives up to its spooky name as it floats above the tarmac. Even on wet roads during a rainstorm, the EV feels planted, which can be partly attributed to its 6,300-pound mass. He eats winding roads for his brunch and maintains his British poise even under heavy braking.

The biggest challenge in driving this electric car isn't the powertrain itself or even the range, which is slightly below average. It is the charging infrastructure, which is patchy and often unreliable. During our testing, which happened to take place during the solar storm that confused GPS systems around the world, it was difficult to locate the charging station. Once we found a DC fast charging station, a technician was servicing one of the ports, and the port we were using was operating at about half its capacity. Subsequent charging tests showed that the Specter was able to charge quickly and easily, especially at EVGo stations that only require a credit card and no app.

Photo electric vehicles
With a range of 430 kilometers, the Specter can be charged from 10 to 80 percent in about 34 minutes on a DC fast charger. Image: Kristin Shaw/PopSci

With a price tag approaching $500,000, the Rolls-Royce Specter is a luxury most Americans can't afford. But the technology is ambitious and will trickle down through the BMW Group and to other automakers in the long term, virtually guaranteeing the improvement of the segment for generations to come.

a man at a computer works next to the blue car in the factory
Image: Rolls-Royce

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