These will be proper trucks

Can Rivian Actually Beat Ford and GMC to the EV Punch?


March 2, 2019 Cars By Photo by Sam Bendall

Automobile manufacturers are redefining themselves as tech firms. Tech may be the best prism for understanding the past few months at nascent EV startup Rivian.

Rivian had roused some skepticism among automotive media members. Rivian had received hundreds of millions in venture capital funding, recruited executives from McLaren and bought a factory. The company also went about a decade without producing a car. For much of that time, Rivian maintained media silence. Interaction was limited to vague vision statements on the website. Doubt filled the vacuum. Not for the first time, media members were wrong.

The product launch came, finally. Rivian killed it. Their “electric adventure vehicles,” the R1T pickup and the R1S SUV, were the talk of the L.A. Auto Show. They were cooler, more capable and closer to production than anticipated. Rivian exhibited real potential to redefine crucial automotive segments and, potentially, our relationship with the automobile.

As in the tech world, a successful launch made Rivian an acquisition target. Per reports, two established giants in tech (Amazon) and automotive (GM) plan investments that would value the company in the billions. Despite initial efforts to extinguish such talk, people can’t help but bandy Rivian about as the next Tesla. Founder and CEO R.J. Scaringe will have to step up his Twitter game.

Why this sea change? Start with the performance. Even in the EV world, Rivian’s numbers pop. The top end trucks will produce around 750hp and 800-plus lb-ft of torque. They will accelerate from 0-60mph in a supercar quick 3.0 seconds. Remember these are full-sized vehicles. They will be formidable off-roaders with up to 14 inches of ground clearance and a rating for one meter of water. They will be proper trucks, capable of towing up to 11,000lbs.

The most startling number is the range. Rivian has promised its high-end trucks with the 180kWh battery pack will travel more than 400 miles on a charge. That’s significantly better than Tesla and other EV companies have achieved. That’s also better than many cars running on gasoline will do between fuelings.

Rivian, fittingly for a company originally named “Mainstream Motors,” is not creating a stylized niche. They are going for the heart of the automotive market. The full-sized pickup and SUV segments are the most competitive, and vital in the American market. Whether it’s Ford, Mercedes or Porsche, carmakers depend on one of those two segments for profits. Those vehicles have been laggards improving fuel efficiency and have gotten away with it thanks to low oil prices. Rivian could enter those segments with paradigm-altering performance and zero emissions.

Crucial to that effort, for Rivian, will be keeping down the price. That has been a struggle for every EV company and major manufacturer investing in EVs. Rivian lists pre-federal tax credit base prices for the R1T ($69,000) and R1S ($72,000). Those price points would put Rivian in play for Sierra Denali or Range Rover buyers. But, how soon Rivian can get down near that base price remains to be seen. The promised $35,000 base price for Tesla’s Model 3 has been more of an aspiration goal than reality so far.

Rivian having any success in full-sized pickups and SUVs could make them a catalyst for change in the market. Even the specter of Rivian seems to be having some impact. Ford confirmed an EV F-Series was coming in January. GM has already walked back comments suggesting there would be no EV pickups.

Like a tech firm, Rivian’s potential is as significant (if not more so) than its present. Selling its vehicles is just part of the business. Rivian also has its versatile skateboard platform. That platform can underpin an array of Rivian vehicles. It can also be licensed out to other manufacturers, producing profits and, with widespread adoption, reducing component costs. Pininfarina’s upcoming electric Battista hypercar reportedly will use Rivian tech. There’s a reason a VW exec muted a similar plan for the company’s MEB platform. For GM, collaborating with Rivian would provide a leg up over bootstrapping a Silverado EV. The company has had enough trouble trying to make gasoline engines more efficient.

Rivian also has a purportedly unhackable cloud architecture. While encouraging buyers to leave the pavement and civilization behind, Rivian will still have one of the American market’s most connected vehicles. The potential applications supersede autonomous driving and simulated flatulence. Rivian could incorporate novel things like over-the-air performance upgrades and video game-style leveling up. A Rivian may even be able to take you on a guided, Jurassic Park-style tour of national parks. One could see how Rivian’s advances in that realm would align with Amazon’s mission for cloud-based world domination.

In tech, stocks and, indeed, media coverage, potential is more exciting than present reality. There’s a strong tendency to conflate the two. The reality for Rivian is still a long, hard slog to scale up to production, to meet quality demands, and to create a national sales and service infrastructure from scratch. Whatever the employee count this week, Rivian is about 1/60th the size of Tesla. It’s a long way to becoming the discerning vehicle choice in Aspen, Jackson Hole and Nantucket, let alone sparking dramatic recalibration and development in the rest of the automotive industry.

But, Rivian’s potential is real. Additional investments from established corporate partners like Amazon and GM will help them realize it. There may be a lot more to look forward to than the rally hatchback. Though, please, keep working on the rally hatchback.

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