Startup Rivian looks to beat Tesla to the punch with an EV pickup
Elon Musk has been toying with the idea of a Tesla pickup for years and has even amped up the prospect recently, asking his Twitter followers for feature ideas. Per his most recent “Master Plan,” though, it’ll come after the Model Y crossover, which is still at least two years away. That’s a problem for Tesla, because the 2020 Rivian R1T electric pickup is also two years away.
Automakers large and small have toyed with hybrid and full-electric pickups over the years, and several are slated for the near future. Ohio-based Workhorse was the first to announce plans to build a dedicated EV truck from the ground up rather than convert an existing model, and it’ll be first to market early next year if all goes to plan. Although Workhorse’s range-extended W-15 will be sold to the public, it was expressly designed for commercial fleets and is a no-frills affair. Rivian’s R1T, on the other hand, is made for you.
At 215.5 inches long, the R1T is roughly the size of a single-cab Toyota Tacoma. Its 136-inch wheelbase splits the difference between a single- and double-cab Tacoma, though, to give the R1T better approach, departure, and breakover angles (34, 30, and 26 degrees, respectively) as well as more interior space. Helping make those numbers possible is a standard air suspension that gives the R1T 7.9 inches to 14.2 inches of ground clearance, significantly greater than the Tacoma’s 9.4 inches. Rivian claims a fording depth of 39.4 inches, after which point it says the truck will begin to float. (Toyota doesn’t publish an official fording depth for the Tacoma.) Another cool off-road stat: It can climb a 45-degree (100 percent) grade, thanks to its sedan-low center of gravity.
Rivian really does intend for you to take its truck off-road. The company claims it’s done extensive off-roading and even rock crawling as part of its development and to calibrate the many drive modes of the off-road terrain selector. You haven’t heard about it because all the prototypes were disguised as F-150s.
Helping make that possible is the “skateboard” architecture. Much like a traditional pickup, the R1T uses a body-on-frame design, but one from the future. Borrowing an idea pioneered by GM back in 2002, Rivian’s skateboard incorporates the battery, motors, transmissions, cooling system, and front and rear suspension into a complete module that can have any type of body bolted on top of it. As with most purpose-built EVs, a long, flat battery pack sits in the middle with the front and rear subframes attached to either end. The front subframe consists of a control-arm suspension with two motors and two transmissions placed behind the front axle for optimal weight distribution. The rear subframe uses a multilink suspension and places its two motors and two transmissions ahead of the rear axle for the same reason. Neither end uses an anti-roll bar. In their place is Tenneco’s Kinetic damping system, which links the upper shock chambers on one side of the car with the lower chambers on the opposite side so that when cornering, cross-car hydraulic flow prevents body roll. Six-piston front brakes and 20-inch wheels wrapped in 275/65R20 Pirelli Scorpion tires are standard fare.
The motors themselves are off-the-shelf permanent-magnet units mounted sideways and pointing inward. Each drives one wheel through a centrally mounted single-speed transmission. To save weight, each pair of transmissions front and rear shares the same case but no moving parts. Putting the transmission outputs in the center of the vehicle allows for long halfshafts that Rivian says give the R1T greater wheel articulation. More important, each wheel having its own motor allows for precise torque vectoring at each wheel independently of the others, which should allow the R1T better traction than any mechanical system.
Each motor is rated at 147 kilowatts, or 197 horsepower, for a total of 588 kW or 788 hp. Torque depends on which battery you buy, rated at 413 lb-ft for the smallest and 826 lb-ft for the two larger batteries. With a curb weight estimated at just under 5,900 pounds (2,676 kg) (with a 7,650-pound (3,470-kg) GVWR), Rivian claims the aluminum and steel R1T will hit 60 mph in just 3.0 seconds with the medium-sized battery. The large battery needs 3.2 seconds; the small battery models will hit 60 mph in about 5.0 seconds. The small-battery model’s output will be upgradable—permanently or temporarily—via over-the-air updates. Perhaps of greater concern to truck owners, Rivian also claims an 11,000-pound (4,990-kg) tow rating, though max towing will slow you down and cut your range in half. A four-door, four-wheel-drive Tacoma’s tow rating tops out at 6,400 pounds (2,903 kg).
That’s not a huge problem, though. Rivian’s smallest lithium-ion battery is rated at 105 kW-hr, 5 kW-hr more than Tesla’s largest battery. There’s also a medium-sized battery good for 135 kW-hr and a “MegaPack” that holds 180 kW-hr. These batteries provide “230-plus”, “300-plus”, and “400-plus” miles (“370-plus”, “480-plus”, and “640-plus” km) of range, respectively. Regardless of capacity, each battery pack is made up of modules that can be replaced individually and won’t strand the vehicle if one goes down. Each module holds up to 15 kW-hr and contains 864 cylindrical 21700-type cells. The small battery uses seven modules, the midsized one has nine, and there are 12 in the MegaPack. All have been fully tested to work between –40 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
Rivian hasn’t announced all charging times yet but says the R1T can currently handle up to 160-kW charging (400 amps at 400 volts) through its SAE CCS–type plug in the driver-side front fascia. The MegaPack will take an 80 percent charge in 50 minutes at such a charger and add 200 miles (322 km) of range in 30 minutes. The company also says the computer will monitor your charging routine (Level 2 at home every night, using DC fast chargers all the time, etc.) and adjust itself to maximize battery life. Like all EVs, charging will slow down as the battery passes 80 percent capacity. The pack itself is protected by a multilayer ballistic shield designed for both on- and off-road hazards.
Of course, there are other truck tasks beyond towing and trail running. The R1T is rated for 1,760 pounds (798 kg) of payload. As of now, though, the R1T is only offered with a bed that’s 4.6 feet long by 4.5 feet wide—considerably shorter than the Tacoma’s beds. On the plus side, Rivian took repairability into account and made sure the front fenders and bed sides bolt on and are easily replaced.
Part of the reason for the shorter-than-average bed is the party trick: a 12.4-cubic-foot horizontal “Gear Tunnel” storage compartment under the rear seat, which is accessed from small drop-down doors on either side of the bed just behind the rear passenger doors. It’s designed to hold things like golf bags, snowboards, or collapsed baby strollers, and the doors themselves can be used as seats while donning your surf gear or steps to access the roof or bed (they can support 300 pounds (136 kg)). The access doors are opened by buttons on the front corners of the bed rails.
Also likely to impress your friends is a standard built-in power tonneau cover that rolls up in a hidden cavity above the horizontal storage compartment and deploys and retracts with the touch of a button. (This tonneau, a gentle spoiler on the tailgate, front-wheel air curtains, and the aforementioned ballistic full belly pan with rear diffuser deliver what Rivian claims will be a class-leading pickup truck drag coefficient.) Controls are located on the top of the bed rail above the driver-side taillight. Those buttons also control the power tailgate, which doesn’t just go up and down electrically but can drop straight down 180 degrees to allow easier access to the bed. Cables in each side of the bed can secure gear and alert your phone if anyone cuts or tampers with them. There are three 110-volt outlets and four USB outlets in the bed to keep everything charged. Rivian will sell telescopic accessory crossbars that can mount in the bed, to the bed rails, or to the roof. A channel in these bars will accept mounting hardware for typical sporting equipment.
If you still haven’t found enough space for your stuff, Rivian says you can remove the spare tire from its tub under the bed floor for another 7.0 cubic feet (the Honda Ridgeline’s bed trunk holds 7.3 cu ft). That is, of course, if you’ve already filled the 11.7-cubit-foot frunk under the hood, which Rivian claims is larger than the one in the nose of a Tesla Model X.
Still not enough? Rivian will offer telescoping racks that mount to the roof and/or bed rails with adjustable mounts that you can attach bikes, cargo boxes, and even tents to.
Get the small or medium-sized battery, and there’s 3.4 cu ft of storage space under the rear seats. Most of the interior is covered in a material called Super Fabric, which repels nearly every conceivable stain without looking and feeling cheap. All of the wood trim is acquired from sustainable sources. The floormats are made of Chilewich, a woven extruded yarn that’s both durable and washable. The floormats in particular are meant to be popped out and hosed off after a day in the field, on the trail, or in the rain.
Also able to be popped out: the rear door speakers, so you can have tunes at your next tailgate party. Oh, and just like Rolls-Royce stows umbrellas in the fenders, Rivian stows LED flashlights in its doors.
Moving upward, the R1T comes with a standard panoramic sunroof and a fixed rear window. If that’s not enough light for you, ambient lighting is hidden throughout the interior.
Another thing you won’t see inside the R1T is buttons. All the controls are touchscreens, with a big 15.3-inch one for infotainment, a 12.3-inch one in the instrument cluster, and a small one in the rear below the front center console for adjusting the multizone climate control. All expected advance driver-assistance systems will be offered, including Level 3 automation (leveraging a full suite of radar, lidar, and camera sensors).
Speaking of that center console up front, Rivian heavily debated offering a front bench seat but decided against it for safety reasons (as in other large trucks, it’s difficult to amply protect the center occupant with the passenger airbag). There are six USB ports sprinkled around the cabin.
Although it looks ready to roll, Rivian says the R1T you see here is “92 percent” finished. The skateboard is done, the company says, but there’s some work left to do on the cab and bed. As such, the R1T won’t go on sale until late 2020. When it does, the MegaPack full-power models will lead the charge and start in the mid-$80,000 USD range in its most basic Marathon trim (best range/lowest equipment level). The smaller batteries will go into production a year later with pricing for the 105-kW-hr battery starting in the upper $60,000 USD range.
The R1T pickup and the R1S SUV, which will go on sale a year later, will both be built in Rivian’s Normal, Illinois, factory along with their batteries. You might recognize it as a former Mitsubishi plant that closed its doors in 2015. Rivian bought it last year along with the equipment inside and hopes to hit 20,000 total sales in its first year, with the pickup leading the charge, then 50,000 the second year. We think the SUV will be the better seller. Either way, hitting those numbers won’t be easy. Just ask Tesla. Speaking of whom, Rivian plans to borrow Elon Musk’s direct-to-customer sales model, using mall store kiosks, potentially offering subscription usage models, and possibly contracting with third-party providers to deliver Genesis-like concierge maintenance and service.
Despite just now bursting onto the scene, Rivian has been around since 2009. We got our first hint of the project back in June when the company promised us a pickup truck and an SUV combining “the acceleration of a Ferrari with the off-road capability of a Rover or Jeep.” The company is privately funded, with the majority shareholder being a privately held Saudi conglomerate named Abdul Latif Jameel Company Ltd, which owns several green energy businesses and also distributes Toyota and Lexus vehicles in a number of countries, among other things. Although the pickup and SUV will lead things off, Rivian has four more vehicles planned to debut by 2030 and will also build some of its own branded EV chargers in places it thinks truck and SUV buyers will go that don’t currently have charging stations, like national parks.