Rivian's electric truck aims to be Michigan's Tesla-fighter

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Plymouth — The startup car company that got a $700 million investment led by Amazon.com — a move characterized as the "most significant milestone for U.S. autos for all of 2019" by a Wall Street analyst — didn't even have its name on its buildings three months ago.

That wasn't an accident, according to R.J. Scaringe, the 36-year-old founder and CEO of Plymouth-based electric-vehicle maker Rivian Automotive LLC.

The fully electric Rivian R1T is an off-road pickup with up to 400 miles of range. It will be made in Normal, Illinois, and start at $69,000.

"We decided let's say absolutely nothing, true stealth, not hype-stealth but actual stealth — meaning no signs on our buildings until we have all these very complex ingredients together," the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated Ph.D told The Detroit News in an interview.

Like Tesla’s debut of the radical gull-wing Tesla Model X SUV at the Detroit auto show in 2013, Rivian in November stole the Los Angeles Auto Show from other domestic automakers. Its R1T electric pickup defied the granola-green EV stereotype with Tesla-like claimed performance of zero-60 mph in a face-flattening 3 seconds while offering 400-mile range.

The truck offered space in unlikely places, including under the front hood and behind the rear seats, thanks to its batteries-in-the-floor "skateboard" architecture.

Rivian's prototypes recently caught the eye of one of the world's biggest technology companies. Amazon.com LLC is at the helm of a $700 million cash injection announced in February. A possible partnership with General Motors Co. is in the works. That's all been achieved without the typical startup hype-machine made popular by Elon Musk's Tesla Inc., which in recent years repeatedly missed self-imposed launch or production targets.

Rivian’s founder is a less flamboyant founder than cult-hero Musk. One metric: Scaringe has 4,800 Twitter followers compared to Musk’s 25 million. That doesn't mean the new electric-vehicle startup hasn't been met with skepticism from some industry experts and Illinois politicians who initially scoffed at the company's acquisition of a former Mitsubishi car plant in Normal, Illinois.

Under the leadership of founder and CEO R. J. Scaringe, Rivian Automotive has become a golden child in the eyes of analysts and investors.

Still, under Scaringe's leadership his company has become a golden child in the eyes of analysts and potential investors at a time when experts are becoming skeptical of anything related to the automotive industry. Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas has said in multiple notes that Rivian will "disrupt" Tesla. Jonas was the analyst who called Rivian the biggest auto story of the year.

Rivian’s chassis construction is similar to other EVs with its battery laid out under the seats and electric motors – fore and aft – providing all-wheel drive. But the EV concept’s unique exterior styling and utility are like nothing else on the market.

"People associate the term 'electric vehicle' with a compact car," said Karl Brauer, an auto analyst with Kelley Blue Book. "Even the Tesla Model S and Model X are relatively small and low-slung, which conveys performance but not utility. The Rivian prototypes are physically large, with aggressive styling that conveys strong capability and functionality."

The utility and storage on Rivian products no doubt has Amazon drooling over the storage delivery possibilities. That and the fact that when the vehicles go on sale in 2020, they will be equipped with a level of autonomy that allows them to take over acceleration, steering and some road monitoring from the driver.

The Rivian R1T pickup will carry an estimated base sticker price of $69,000 that's aimed at well-to-do buyers of Tesla’s Model X SUV. And that’s with the smaller 105-kWh battery with a 230-mile range.

To create the car, Scaringe and company established offices in Michigan, California and the United Kingdom. The Plymouth headquarters is in an Albert Kahn-designed "node" on Haggerty, 30 minutes outside Detroit. He and his team converted an old factory into a modern, refreshed office that houses most of the 750-person Rivian team.

They also bought and began to convert a defunct former auto factory in Illinois and hired people to build out the assembly line that is to begin rolling in the third quarter of 2020.

The company has a slew of engineers and designers working on the pickup and an SUV, among other things. Those moves are turning the Michigan startup into one of the biggest automotive stories of the year before it has sold a single vehicle.

"Externally it came from nowhere, and all the sudden all this noise was there," Scaringe said. "But internally, the day before the show and the day after the show looked basically the same. We were all sitting here. We were all working. It's just that the world then all of the sudden had all of the visibility into what we were doing."

Chief engineer Brian Gase said the company has mostly been keeping its head down. Gase, 35, worked at Ford on the team that created the aluminum-body F-150 before he joined Rivian in 2010. He was one of 12 employees then, and the company planned to build an electric sports car. The company switched gears around 2011 to build the R1T pickup and R1S SUV.

During a busy February afternoon at the Rivian headquarters here, Gase said the recent Amazon investment hadn't even registered with many employees, most of whom were spread throughout the wide-open office space outside the design studio located through two levels of security in the center of the facility. That focus might come from the fact that there's still a long road to launching the assembly line late next year, Scaringe said.

Rivian employees work with each other in open spaces near 'The Kitchen' at the electric truck maker's engineering center in Plymouth.

"We're building this vehicle because it does not exist," Gase said, reached later by telephone. "There haven't been really any automotive startups that made it since the 1950s. We're putting a product out in an area that doesn't exist. That kind of gives us the reason to put in the late nights. It's hard work. It's not a 9-to-5 to create something that didn't exist before."

The Rivian team plans to begin production by late 2020. The first vehicles would be delivered in 2021. For now, the team is renovating the old Mitsubishi plant, and designing four other unnamed, unannounced vehicles that Scaringe would not offer details on. "Stealth mode," he said. 

Analysts and experts like Brauer and Jonas say Rivian's future is unclear, but the early wins are promising. Scaringe understands early skepticism surrounding his startup. But he and his team say they've done their prep work, and have the company positioned to deliver on the all-electric pickups and SUVs

"We want to under-promise and over-deliver," Gase said. "This is real. We've got a plant and a team to do this. It's real."


Twitter: @Ian_thibodeau

Staff Writer Henry Payne contributed.