In a recent article in the weekly trade journal Automotive News (AN), a story on electric automotive startup companies caught my eye. A number of emerging startups were mentioned in the article. Some of the startups I am familiar with, others not at all. Apparently worldwide there are hundreds of wannabe EV automakers reaching for the pot of gold. The ones mentioned in the AN article were Bollinger Motors, Byton, Faraday Future, Karma Automotive, Nio, Lucid Motors and Seres. Space doesn’t permit me to comment extensively on each of these but one, Faraday Future just recently filed for bankruptcy and the others are known to be struggling to make an impact and rise above the din.
One automaker mentioned in the story leading the EV startup pack is Plymouth, Mich.-based Rivian Automotive. Haven’t heard about Rivian and its R1S and R1 EV models? You will soon. I’ve been curious about Rivian since I first saw photos of the strikingly attractive Rivian 7-passenger SUV and pick-up models when they were introduced to the media last fall at the Los Angeles Auto Show. It was apparent from the news stories written out of L.A. that the new vehicle introduction with the most media buzz weren’t from Mercedes-Benz or Jaguar or GM, but rather from an automotive upstart from Michigan.
What grabbed my attention was not that another EV startup was entering the automotive fray to do battle with Tesla, and now many other international automakers, but how my eyeballs reacted when seeing images of the R1S and R1T offerings. In my humble opinion, both vehicles are the most attractive vehicles to appear on the scene in a long time. Perhaps saying that they exhibit a Range Rover aesthetic best describes their appearance. More about the SUV and pickup in a moment.
Let me first introduce readers to R.J. Scaringe, the 36-year old founder and CEO of Rivian Automotive. A bright guy with a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s prestigious Sloan Automotive Lab, he created Rivian in 2009 with the goal of building an electric sports car, not unlike how fellow EV startup wunderkind Elon Musk did with Tesla. R.J. quickly realized there was no market for a sports car and switched to developing an environmentally friendly and more marketable SUV and pickup. Over the next 10 years he slowly developed the technology, business plan, building organization, supply chain setup and systems for manufacturing. While his engineers were finalizing development of a “skateboard-style” design that would serve as the platform for both his SUV and pickup, he also began to secure funding from major investors, early on from Saudi Arabia, Japan and the U.K., and more recently huge investments of cash of hundreds of millions of dollars from big concerns like Amazon.com, Inc. and Ford Motor Co.
Mr. Scaringe has impressed industry peers with his ability to surround himself with top-shelf, deep bench auto industry veterans, many with EV experience. He also pulled off a brilliant coup when in 2017 he was able, for an almost outrageously reasonable $16 million, to purchase from Mitsubishi Motors an idle auto assembly plant in Normal, Ill. The facility is providing Scaringe and Rivian Automotive 2.4-million-square-feet of space, left-behind usable production equipment and an experienced workforce that is passionate and eager to go back to work and build vehicles. Readers may recall the Tesla’s Elon Musk also made a similar smart move when he bought in California the idle NUMMI assembly plant once owned jointly by Toyota and GM.
Mr. Scaringe has a timetable for when his company’s vehicles will be available for sale. Hoping that his predictions are more accurate than those given by Tesla’s Mr. Musk in the past, the R1S and R1T will be available for sale in 2021, with combined sales of 20,000. The company hopes to double sales in 2022. The SUV will list at $72,500 and the pickup will sticker at $68,000. Both will be sold directly to consumers from the factory, like Tesla, and service will be provided by strategically placed display shops. The early word is that the two models will be assembled with heavy content using aluminum, have a 400-mile range and scoot from 0 to 60 mph in three seconds.
So how can Rivian pull off its grand scheme of creating a new auto company and succeed when so many others of late and in the recent past have failed? The odds are still steep, but industry insiders seem to give Scaringe the benefit of the doubt because of his savvy financial and business acumen. I read somewhere that an industry official noted that Scaringe has built a company that can pivot on a dime. Unlike super optimistic Elon Musk at Tesla, when pressed to comment on future product and deadlines, R.J. responded with, “I tend to be quiet to outsiders about what we are doing. Let the results speak for themselves.”
The attention-getting news from Rivian last month announcing that it has received an order from Amazon for 100,000 EV delivery vans certainly will give the startup a healthy dose of cash for paying the bills. Ten thousand of the initial van order will be delivered to Amazon in 2022. Many obstacles, however, remain ahead for Rivian. It still needs to work out arrangements to deliver vehicles to customers (sales will be direct from factory to consumer, skipping the traditional dealer) and provide parts and service. While some service issues with the electric-powered vehicle can be done with over-the-air software updates, the company still needs a plan for delivering repair parts in a timely manner, and training technicians to make repairs.
From an aesthetic standpoint, I think that both the SUV and the pickup are design/styling home runs. I greatly admire the simplicity of both vehicle’s lines, both exterior and interior. They will be vehicles that will earn their owners many compliments and certainly will stand the test of time and remain handsome for years to come. No excessive ornamentation or chrome jewelry. No silly floating roof. No semi-truck sized front grille. Admittedly it may take some time to adjust to those interesting test-tube-shaped headlights. I salute Scaringe and his team. They have put together an automobile company that just might be able to successfully compete with Tesla. As well I’m hopeful that the young upstart can stay the course for the long run and be a success against all the worldwide, established automakers just now flooding the market with a wide range of exciting EVs. They have a head start by designing two very handsome vehicles.
• Trivia answer: 1899. Credit is given to William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa. The vehicle was little more than an electrified farm wagon.
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.