American startup aims to build the Model S of on/off-road trucks
Earlier this month, Angus MacKenzie’s story “Tesla Killers: Rise of the E-Machines” detailed the headwinds that will face Elon Musk’s enterprise as mainstream automakers ready some 50-plus new battery-electric vehicles for production by 2025. Not mentioned in that piece are the startup EV disrupters we’ve covered that also hope to muscle in on the long-distance EV space—companies like Lucid Motors, Faraday Future, NIO, and Byton. Most of these have made loud noises about ambitious launch plans in the North America, and some have clearly gotten out a bit over their skis. A fifth such startup is Rivian Automotive LLC, an American company that’s made almost no noise whatsoever to date, despite having toiled quietly for nine years toward a scheduled launch of two battery-electric trucks in mid-2020: a pickup and a three-row SUV that will deliver “the acceleration of a Ferrari with the off-road capability of a Rover or Jeep.”
The company was founded in 2009 by RJ Scaringe, who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from MIT, where he was a researcher in the Sloan Automotive Laboratory, a green transportation incubator. His original plan was to bring a high-performance electric coupe to market, and that plan looked viable enough to get buy-in from some early investors that included retired Chrysler design boss and Motor Trend Car of the Year judge Tom Gale. This initial round of capital funded construction of a running prototype by 2011; but by then the automotive landscape had changed enough to prompt a rethink of the product and business plan to include the aforementioned trucks, which will mostly share a running skateboard chassis design. Along with this shift in focus came the current name of the company—Rivian, which is simply a mashup of syllables from Indian River, after the Florida Intracoastal Waterway along which Scaringe grew up.
The new and improved business case helped Rivian secure significant funding from fellow MIT alumnus Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel. He currently serves as chairman and president of Abdul Latif Jameel Company Ltd—a Saudi conglomerate that owns several renewable energy subsidiaries around the world and has a large automotive footprint in the Middle East (at times claiming the distinction of being the world’s largest independent Toyota/Lexus distributor). This funding source has helped Rivian expand to an enterprise that employs 350 people in four locations: A large, open and airy sleekly modern R&D center and headquarters in Plymouth, Michigan, a western suburb of Detroit; two locations in California—Irvine, where the battery and control systems are developed, and San Jose, which is responsible for connectivity and autonomy; and a 2.6-million-square-foot assembly plant in Normal, Illinois. The plant formerly built the beloved Mitsubishi Eclipse and came with equipment for stamping, injection molding, body shop, paint, and final assembly of 250,000 vehicles per year.
Few specific details about the products themselves have been revealed as of yet, but Scaringe grabbed a dry-erase marker and drew me a picture of where he’s aiming to place his electric trucks in a crowding marketplace that he expects to gradually transition from an ownership model to one in which travelers pay for usage. His whiteboard talk starts with a single axis showing commodity transportation at left and aspirational brands at right. Today’s ownership setup causes sales to distribute along a bell curve: low on the Mitsubishi Mirage left end, high in the loaded-Camry middle, and low again on the Mercedes-Benz right end. He reckons the use-based economy will rearrange that distribution, with high demand for low-end, cheap vehicles on short trips (think Uber X), reduced interest in today’s median mainstreamers, and rising demand at the aspirational end of the spectrum for vacations, longer journeys, and more predictable trips. Because no new startup can reasonably hope to succeed on both ends of that distribution, Rivian will leave the commodity end to the established players and focus instead on the aspirational end.
Next he adds a vertical axis where the up direction represents “comfortable/inviting” and down represents “impressive/showy.” Scaringe sees the Tesla Model X fitting squarely in the lower right quadrant along with most European high-performance SUVs. These emphasize splashy styling and impressive performance at the expense of practicality, with function following form. The Rivian products will aim for the upper right quadrant—still aspirational and high-performing but considerably more practical, inviting, and casual. Think of a Patagonia jacket versus a Hugo Boss twill overcoat.
Will Rivian’s funding dry up before it gets to production as Faraday Future’s seems to have done? Can a second American startup tap into the Apple-like buyer devotion and mania Tesla enjoys? Keep it tuned here to find out as we approach an anticipated official unveiling this November.