Rivian Founder RJ Scaringe Lays Out the Big Future for Electric Cars

Interesting blog by Nick Luchesi

The electric car hype cycle has traditionally gone like this: Never-ever-gonna-happen concept cars with vague release dates, sometime in the 2020s, are met with hopeful, uncritical press coverage: blog posts, Youtube videos, and Instagram stories. But the futuristic vehicles never make it to production, the follow-up stories are never published, and the cars are mostly forgotten about. The cycle repeats itself every few years, and the reputation of the electric car gets worse.But that perception changing.

By most accounts, the latest big debut from an electric automaker not only won over skeptics at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, but it also became the show’s surprise hit. That positive impression — firstmade from the inspiring heights of the Griffith Observatory — wasn’t based on hype; it was based on the fact that there was no hype. And less hype is definitely what the electric car needs.

Rivian, which has both a truck and an SUV in the works, is the company that resisted the hype cycle by remaining in what its founder calls “true stealth” mode.

“What you see here is what will be on the market,” said Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe at the end of a 20-minute presentation inside the LA Convention Center back in November.

It’s a sentiment he reiterates during a recent interview: “We are not going to show teaser concept cars. We are going to be showing things that are very well developed and almost 100 percent representative of what will ultimately be delivered to customers.”

Rivian's debut at the LA Auto Show. CEO RJ Scaringe stands next to the R1S SUV.
That strategy wowed the auto media: “Rivian was the toast of the L.A. Auto Show,” opined Autoblog. “Perhaps Tesla should accelerate its truck program now,” commented Inside EVs. “Its new R1S SUV … looks disruptive and on-trend,” reported Car Magazine. “Their truck got the attention in L.A. but this could also be a category first,” predicted Tom Randall, a transportation journalist for Bloomberg.

The R1T is the Rivian pickup truck with a base price of $69,000 before the federal electric vehicle tax credit of $7,500 kicks in. It boasts a range of 400 miles for the high-end battery, should go 0-60 mph in three seconds, seats five people, and has 750 horsepower. Notably, it has a “gear tunnel” hollowed out of its body. Renderings of modular add-ons among Rivian enthusiasts are currently the hot topic online. Battery packs will be sized from 180, 135, and 105 kWh, with the biggest (and most expensive) battery vehicles being delivered first in the second half of 2020. It’s a pickup truck with a fandom.

Meanwhile, the R1S is the Rivian SUV with a base price of $72,500 before the federal tax credit. Though, with options, the luxury vehicle could get close to $100,000. It seats seven people and can tow up to 7,700 pounds. It has the same battery size as the truck and is also built on Rivian’s “skateboard” chassis model: a motor for each wheel is set alongside a battery base (the “deck” of the skateboard).

Rivian skateboard
The Rivian "skateboard" chassis shows the battery and the motors around each wheel.
Right now, Rivian is taking preorders with a $1,000 deposit for either the truck or the SUV.

“We’ve spent a lot of time; thousands of decisions, hundreds of people putting this together to make sure all the pieces are lined up,” Scaringe said during the LA Auto Show. Rivian’s two vehicles are the results.

Rivian Pickup Truck Teaser Image
“No Teaser Cars,” and the Rivian Coupe That Wasn’t
It didn’t always appear so outwardly easy for Rivian. Scaringe says he made a mistake back in 2011 that informed his “true-stealth” strategy almost a decade later.

“When I first started, I was a little less quiet,” he says. “We said a few too many things. In fact, it showed a sneak peek picture of our coupe vehicle.”

But Rivian never made that coupe, seen in a photo that still lives on the company’s Wikipedia page as a royal blue model, reminiscent of an Audi A3. With a silky car cover seductively pulled up to show one wheel, it’s a tease for a car that never came. It was a prototype, and the marketing wasn’t unlike what other new car companies engage in to build buzz.

But with the R1T and R1S, Rivian didn’t show as much as a bumper before the LA Auto Show. That will be the Rivian M.O. going forward, Scaringe says.

“Just as we did with our first products, we’re not going to show teaser concept cars,” he says.

Scaringe says that in spite of the company’s no-leaks, no-hype policy, the pace is aggressive behind closed doors.

“If you were to see how we are internally, we’re pushing timing aggressively,” he says. “We’re always driving ourselves harder. We’re super-excited about not just the current products but the future products. But, we have to adjust what we say externally such that we don’t set up any false expectations.”

See also: Who’s Driving a Rivian in 2029?

Avoiding attention until the right time manifested itself in ways that felt more secret than private — like a lack of signs on its buildings.

Rivian facilities in Michigan and California didn’t have signs on them before the LA Auto Show, Scaringe says.

“We were in stealth. ‘Stealth’ is such a funny word because many companies that claim to be in stealth are in fact the opposite. They’re hyping and promoting the business.

“We were truly in ‘stealth’. It was a beautiful thing because it allowed us to avoid critique and criticism and, frankly, finding ourselves talking about things for which we weren’t ready to talk about.”

Finding the right facility to build an electric car plant is a complicated task for any new automaker, so rather than build a plant from the ground up, Rivian acquired a former Mitsubishi plant in the central Illinois city of Normal.

“We’re spending significant dollars as we speak,” Scaringe tells me of the design for new equipment that will go into the 2.4 million square foot plant on the Illinois plains. The company must create no less than 1,000 jobs. Rivian will spend up to $175 million in the plant by 2024, according to the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, as reported by Reuters.

Right now, the facility undergoing a full transition, Scaringe says. The company is moving out the old, preparing the space for the new, and “at the beginning of summer, we’ll start moving a lot of that new equipment into our facility.”

Amazon’s Major Investment
In February, Rivian announced a $700 million investment round led by Amazon.

It was a major investment for Rivian, which up to that point had raised $450 million, according to a company official. It wasn’t clear how much Amazon invested, other than that it had led the round.

A few days after the news, Scaringe offered a little more color around what the Amazon investment meant to Rivian:

“The key thing for us that is so exciting about Amazon is really their orientation [of] combining innovation with creating incredible customer experiences,” he says. “You can imagine there’s a lot of other elements of the business that we’re quite excited about looking at how we can partner with.”

Scaringe wouldn’t comment further on involvement from Amazon, but a few days before the investment in Rivian, Aurora Innovation, a self-driving car startup, announced it had closed a $530 million Series B round led by Sequoia Capital, of which Amazon was also an investor. Rivian’s R1S and R1T models will drive on their own, almost — each has LIDAR sensors, and the company says the vehicles will be “Level 3” capable. “Don’t feel like driving after a day of hiking or cycling? Relax with a movie or turn your attention to your companions while on the highway,” advises Rivian on its website.

Rivian’s other backers include Japan’s Sumitomo Corp., Britain’s Standard Chartered Plc., and Saudi auto distributor Abdul Latif Jameel Ltd. Scaringe wouldn’t comment on rumors of investment by “General Motors or any of the other [original equipment manufacturers]” in our interview.

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