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This startup is building self-driving trucks and SUVs for futuristic off-road adventures

This startup is building self-driving trucks and SUVs for futuristic off-road adventures


Rivian will show off its EVs later this year ahead of a 2020 launch

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Photo: Rivian

With every month that goes by, it seems like another electric vehicle startup comes along and promises to disrupt the auto industry. This month, it’s Rivian, a California-based startup, emerging from stealth for the first time this month with aspirations to be something of a Land Rover for souped-up EVs. The company is intent on launching an all-electric five-passenger pickup truck in 2020 and a seven-passenger SUV after that, though it will show them off later this year at the LA Auto Show.

Rivian claims these vehicles will cost between $50,000 to nearly $100,000, deliver between 200 and 400 miles of range, offer “blistering” on-road speed, “incredible” off-road performance, and, eventually, will drive themselves. Want to drive to a trail in an EV, start hiking, and have your pickup meet you at the end? That’s one example of an experience Rivian wants to deliver.

Taken at face value, these sound like the types of blustery promises that are all the rage with EV startups. But peer a little closer, and there are differences between Rivian’s approach and those of the other EV startups that have come and gone.

Founded in 2009, Rivian wants to launch an all-electric pickup in 2020 with 400 miles of range

For one thing, Rivian isn’t brand-new. The company has just taken a while to reach the point where it felt comfortable stepping into the light, according to founder and CEO RJ Scaringe. Rivian was founded in 2009, back when the Tesla Roadster was still pretty much the only EV catching anyone’s eyes. At the time, Scaringe set out to make — what else? — his own version of a Tesla Roaster, a 2+2 electric sports car. He raised what he says was a “small amount of capital,” assembled a 20-person team, and built a prototype.

But as EVs matured, there were suddenly more options and ideas on the table. “[I] got to a classic sort of fork in the road end of 2011,” Scaringe told The Verge during an interview in April (which you can read in full below). “[I could] take the small amount of capital I had left and continue developing that product, or accept that we need to rethink the product strategy, [and] how we were financing the business.”

All this patience has been key in a part of the auto industry that can be very volatile. Flash-forward to now, and Rivian has around 350 employees across three development locations — one in Michigan and two in California — as well as a production factory in Normal, Illinois, where the vehicles and battery packs will be built.

The company also has “close to half a billion dollars” in funding, Scaringe says, including a $200 million debt financing round from London’s Standard Chartered Bank that the company is announcing this week. (The rest of Rivian’s backing mainly comes from Sumitomo Corporation of America, an American subsidiary of one of Japan’s biggest goods and services corporations, and the investment arm of Abdul Latif Jameel, a Saudi Arabian-based conglomerate that deals all over the automotive supply chain.)

Half a billion dollars — hell, even a billion, or two — is not enough to make a successful car company. And a successful American EV startup is actually something we haven’t seen recently, despite the rash of recent competition. While there have been a number of attempts in Tesla’s wake, most of them have stalled out.

Rivian’s trying to change that by focusing on the future in a more particular and cerebral way than the competition. No one knows for sure how exactly the automotive industry will be changed by electrification, self-driving technology, or new ownership models over the next two decades. If Rivian survives, the journey to find out will be quite the ride. If it doesn’t, it’ll likely join a number of other startups on the scrap heap.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rivian CEO and founder RJ Scaringe.
Rivian CEO and founder RJ Scaringe.
Photo: Rivian

Why try to make a pickup and an SUV?

When we think about the sort of pickup or SUV segment, the opportunity to really rethink those in dramatic ways is quite exciting. We’re using technology to allow these to be really high performance. So when I say high performance, [I mean] sub-three-second 0 to 60. But doing that in a way where they’re still also really capable. Not just Porsche-beating on-road performance, but incredible off-road, well beyond what you’d see in a Land Rover or a Jeep-type product. But then without the compromise in terms of everyday utility. So it’s got more storage and more lockable storage because the way the package is laid out [is different] than a minivan or, of course, any pickup or SUV on the market today.

“Well beyond what you’d see in a Land Rover or a Jeep-type product.”

And it’s largely because we don’t have to pack an engine in, an exhaust system, or a fuel system, so we just have all this beautiful package freedom to do some really interesting things in terms of how we lay out the product.

What big steps do you still need to take to actually flip that metaphorical switch and get into production?

The way we’re structured in terms of financing. Our existing shareholders are very supportive. They’ve taken a very long-term view of the business. So at this point, we’re very much focused on execution of the product. We’ll be showing the products — our two launch products: the rethink of the pickup and the reimagination of the SUV late this year — and then following that, [which is] essentially the final design, we’ll be then in the process of ramping up through pilot and preproduction at the plant in 2019 and then into early 2020.

The US market is your initial market. What other ones are you targeting?

US is launch, but then very quickly going to Europe and going into China. Both, of course, are very large markets.

China seems to be the thing that drives much of the auto industry, especially with EVs, these days. It is such a big market, and I can see the attraction there, but also there is just startup after startup popping up there. How do you balance those two sides of that market?

There’s a tremendous number of EV companies coming out of China. And we’re unique relative to those in that we’re a US company that’s going into China. We’re in the process of looking at partners for the Chinese market, but coming at it from a different vantage point, coming at it as a US company, gives us a different perspective and gives us a different way of looking at the market, and also makes us unique and different from those other players.

I feel like a lot of the buzz around China has almost pushed Europe to the backburner lately, but that’s obviously another key market as well. I know one difference that usually matters when it comes to Europe is that bigger vehicles are a little bit harder to find there. And it seems like you guys are really working in bigger vehicles. How will you position the products that you’re rolling out over there?

So our launch product, the rethink of the pickup, that segment is a more US-centric segment. We’re going to be taking a lot of the weaknesses of the products in those segments in terms of efficiency, in terms of driving dynamics, in terms of performance, and flipping those to strengths. But saying that we still recognize that that product will sell best and really fit the US market strongest.

Its closely related sister product, the seven-passenger SUV, fits into these other markets — Europe, China — quite well. And then, following those products we have other products in the portfolio that continue to play to the same brand music of speaking to exploring and adventure and really enabling life’s adventures. But through different form factors and through smaller vehicles. So our next platform is a smaller format SUV type platform that allows us to go into markets that require smaller vehicles.

Can you give me a bit more perspective on who it is that you expect to be buying these vehicles? It sounds like you’re moving into a part of the EV market that is relatively unexplored right now, which seems like a very good business proposition. But the more I hear the word “adventure,” the more I think, “Well, that’s not going to be for everybody.”

If we take a step back and we think about what we’re launching, at our core, our first product is we’re launching a brand. And that brand needs to connect with customers. It needs to have something that they aspire to. And that aspiration, it’s very important that it can transcend all the changes we’re going to see. And we’re going to be working to drive over the next several decades: a shift away from ownership, a shift away from steering wheels. And when we think about the brand we’re setting up, in many ways I draw the analogy to music. Brand is like culture in that it’s hard to describe with ones and zeros. It’s not something that’s easy to quantify. But the music we’re going to start off with, and the music we’re going to set up with our launch products, is going to be speaking to this idea of exploring.

“The one thing I can say that I don’t think will change is the desire of human beings to go to new places and to see new things.”

When you say the word “adventure,” as you said, it maybe comes up with this sort of sharp point that feels like, “Well, I don’t climb a mountain every day. How would I use this vehicle?” But what we believe is that all the changes we’re going to see over the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years, all the things we can’t predict in terms of how those changes are going to play out, the one thing I can say that I don’t think will change is the desire of human beings to go to new places and to see new things.

And so we’re starting our brand, we’re starting our music, with a set of products that make that statement fairly loudly. So it’s analogous to using electric guitar and a set of drums to really make that statement. As we layer in new products, we’ll play the same music but with different instruments, so they won’t necessarily be as loud. They won’t have the same level of performance, they won’t have the same level of off-road capability. But the reason to launch with something that’s so remarkable in terms of its on and off-road performance is to make a very clear statement: this is a vehicle that could take you anywhere without compromise.

When we think about some of the greatest brands — not just automotive but outside in the electronics space or the camera space — the sharp point of those brands, the “Porsche on a racetrack” moment for those brands, doesn’t necessarily characterize the everyday use case.

Rivian’s battery packs being tested at its Irvine, CA facility.
Rivian’s battery packs being tested at its Irvine, CA facility.
Photo: Rivian

Porsche, I think, is a very good example. People buy the product not to take it on a racetrack, but the brand is built around the idea of a racetrack and performance and motorsports. So in our case, our sharp point, our “Porsche on a race track” moment is the vehicle rolling up to the edge of the beach, climbing up the side of the mountain, going off the path to the edge of the trail. But the everyday adventure that it works so well for by being so good at those extreme adventures is the trip around the corner to Ikea, picking the kids up from school, the trip on a Sunday afternoon to grandma’s house.

And the fact that you can have a product that works well in those sharp branded use cases or those aspirational environments as well as those everyday environments, we think is quite powerful, and it helps us establish something that people can connect with as we move into different flavors, as we move into different instruments in terms of how we’re playing that same music.

I mean, you’re talking about selling a pickup truck and an SUV. I’m certainly not trying to say that’s hard right now because it isn’t. Those are the two fastest-growing segments.

I agree, and I think when you look at the pickup space or when you look at the large SUV space, they’re both segments that we feel would really benefit from significant innovation in terms of technology and in terms of allowing people who want to participate in those segments — either they want to carry their surfboard or they want to carry their large family or they want to carry their pets or they want to go carry their camping gear — but they don’t want to accept something that’s getting 22 miles per gallon. They don’t want to accept something that’s doesn’t feel connected and as smart as what they desire in a product. They want to be part of a shift toward new technologies, and they want to try things like self-driving, and would like to, after a long day at the ski slopes or the long day at the office, get in the vehicle, press a button, and have it take them back home. So that’s the kind of thing that we’ve really thought about in terms of laying out the portfolio.

I think we’re at a place where passenger cars are almost past the point of causing “range anxiety,” but these two segments might be the last ones where consumers feel comfortable with all-electric tech. How are you going to tackle that problem of convincing people that it’s going to be capable enough?

I think the exciting thing about this shift, and the way we focus the company is to go after these market opportunities where we’re on the front edge of technology, on the front edge of adoption. So we don’t expect to pull every single truck customer into this space. In fact, many existing F-150 customers may not be comfortable making that switch yet. And, actually, as we look at the market, we see ourselves pulling customers in many cases not out of the pickup segment, [but] out of other segments. So these are people who may be driving a Tesla but wish they had the ability to carry their surfboard or wish they had the ability to carry their bigger family or a place to put their dog. Something that invites — both in terms of form factor but also in terms of how the product is executed — these active lifestyles.

“Tesla disproved the idea that electric cars were boring. We hope to disprove the idea that electric cars can’t be lifestyle vehicles.”

I think what creates a strong connection with customers is when a company has the ability to disprove a globally accepted untruth. Tesla disproved the idea that electric cars were boring. We hope to disprove the idea that electric cars can’t be lifestyle vehicles can’t be things that carry your family, your gear.

With the autonomous tech, is that something you guys are working on in-house as well, or is that something you’re going to look to another company for?

So we’re developing a Level 3 system, so hands off the wheel, eyes off the road. That allows you — after the journey, after the long day at the office, after a long day on the slopes — to get on the highway and let the vehicle take control. So you can text, you can watch a movie, you can talk to your friends.

And in addition to that, there’s a whole host of brand-related features that are Level 3-plus or even into Level 4. So the kinds of things where you’re making backing up with a trailer extremely easy. Or, you know, if you go for a hike, and you start at one point and you finish at another point, you have the vehicle meet you at the end of the trail. There’s a number of really unique branded features we’re putting into the vehicle that speak to this idea of an active lifestyle.

But are you going to be working on the software? Because I imagine, with the hardware, you’re probably going with suppliers.

Yeah, we’re sourcing all of our perception hardware, and then we’re developing the software in-house. So we have vehicles now that are running both at the Level 3 capability but also with some of these more brand-specific features as well. And that’s what’s happening out of San Jose.

What are some of the biggest dangers or challenges that face your company? Is it competition from other EV startups? Just getting the brand in front of people and letting them know who you are? Something else?

I think, as we look at the competitive landscape, there are tactical risks, there are market risks, there are brand risks. I think, at the core, the most important thing for us is to make sure that the products are remarkable. And when I say remarkable, it needs to be more than just good. It needs to be exceptional. So performance on-road needs to be unlike anything else in these segments. So blistering straight-line performance. And again that’s part of establishing the brand, that’s part of getting people excited. These are the launch products.

In terms of off-road, [we have to] make products that are unlike anything else in this space, in terms of their ability to exceed driving in rough environments, off-road environments, crazy terrains. But then to do that in a way that these are not products that don’t work extremely well in everyday [life]. So products that still, through use of technology, can take you and your family to lunch on the weekend. You can use it to drop the kids off at school, the run to Ikea, without any compromise.

It’s the combination of the extreme levels of performance both on and off road with the everyday usability and utility, and an overall design experience that really invites you in in a Patagonia-like fashion. It makes you comfortable using it. While it’s premium, it doesn’t feel like it’s a pressed suit. It doesn’t feel like it’s something that you can’t get dirty. So our focus is 100 percent on executing to that vision and establishing the brand and then having a brand platform from which we can then add other products that may not necessarily have the same levels of performance, but still speak to this idea of exploring.

Even if it hasn’t been in the public eye, you’ve been working in this space since 2009. The EV market was basically nonexistent at that point. Now, we’re seeing a lot of promises from legacy automakers about moving into this space. What are some of the things that have surprised you as you’ve been trying to get the company off the ground since then?

The exciting thing is, I think we’re at a point now where electric vehicles are the desired powertrain. It’s gone from something where people questioned whether or not it was a desirable configuration. It’s now the configuration that people look at and say, “That’s what I want to be part of.” It’s more advanced. And certainly, that doesn’t play across all segments for all customers. But the perception on electric is quite strong.

Where I think the next 10 to 15 years are going to be quite interesting is looking at how, through the combination of self-driving features, and higher levels of self-driving, and connectivity, we start to rethink the customer model and challenge assumptions around ownership, challenge assumptions around what utilization of assets, single households using the same asset, and moving into environments where you can access products and services that really speak to your use case.

What I think is really exciting, and also intellectually quite compelling, is the shift toward use case-specific solutions. If I’m going to go from [lower] Manhattan to, let’s say, midtown, I can hop into a pod. I don’t care what the brand is. I don’t care what the color is. I don’t care what the feature set is. But if I’m going to go from here to Boston, or if I’m going to go from here to Long Island, I’m going to take a different mobility solution. I’m going to pick something that’s different than that small sort of commoditized bench on wheels.

What we see happening is, as that shift toward use case-specific solutions occurs, it becomes really important that, for anything that’s not a pure commodity, that there’s a brand that customers connect with, and a brand that means something. For us, the focus is establishing a brand in 2020 with the launch of our products, and recognizing that the way that brand is consumed, the way that the brand is perceived, is going to change in many, many, many, ways over the subsequent decade, such that by 2030 customers won’t just be buying Rivians. They’ll be subscribing to Rivians. They’ll be sharing Rivians. They’ll be paying for it as a service. It will be their weekend experience partner, it will be their weekday commuting partner.

“We’re on really step two of a thousand-step journey.”

We’ll start to see very, very different modes that, again, have to connect with customers at a deeper level for them to select this as their choice. So I guess the part that I find really interesting is that shift in how we think about the business, and how we think about the consumption models and the fact that we’re on really step two of a thousand-step journey in that transformation that will happen over the course of my lifetime.

So success for the company, or at least paving the way for the success of the company, is about being as aware of all those possible paths that the industry could take so that you can be ready to adapt to them?

Yeah, for sure. And I think in terms of our long-term success, you asked the question before: what are the core things we’re focusing on? We took the decision to identify a few key areas that we felt really needed to be things that we owned and developed technology around. And they really speak to our vision and our belief that the world will shift to electric, but also toward vehicles that are increasingly driving themselves, and eventually driving themselves to a degree that allows multiple users to access the same asset.

The technologies that will enable us to move to those new consumer models really revolve around a deep rethinking of the digital architecture of the vehicle. So how we manage data, how we manage connectivity, so that everything on the vehicle from your seat position to the window settings to the topography of the road you just drove on are things that we need to be tracking, so that we can create a better experience and, for that matter, so that you as a consumer are not tied to a specific vehicle.

Today, you get out of vehicle number 1,050, and into vehicle 10,035, you have to readjust your seats, you have to adjust your mirror, you have to adjust your infotainment system. [But] we connect you, the operator of the vehicle with your profile. So when you move, everything about you moves with you to another vehicle.

That’s built into our launch vehicle, in an environment where vehicles are owned that will be helpful for use within families. But that provides the bedrock for the foundation for us to then start to move to new consumption models and get customers comfortable with the idea of their profile moving with them. And it moves well beyond the things like seat settings and infotainment. It moves into your battery management parameters, it moves into your control parameters, the way you like to drive. Everything goes with you, and so we have a robust data management strategy and cloud architecture strategy where we manage all that data and use the level of deep learning to then adjust to your use case.

A lot of that is purely hypothetical because we’re looking at, you know, 10 years out, 20 years out. So what’s your approach to thinking about those things? Do you have a high-level team at the company that you bounce these ideas off of? Are you doing research?

We do. We have a team that does research, and we also have a strategy team that’s focused on not just launch, not just our handshake with the world, but also what we launch with, the brand that we set up, how that transcends time. Everything about our strategy has been built on we believe are really three core vectors of change. I talked about how today we’re at step two of a thousand-step journey. We’re at the analogous place the internet was in 1991 as an industry. And the industry is just beginning to understand, just beginning to look down the path of what this massive transformation will look like.

We’re in a world now where there’s lots of hype, there’s lots of false precision, there are lots of strange things happening in the financial marketplace. But all that hype, all that false precision, is sitting on top of what is actually a fundamental shift in how we think about vehicles, how we think about mobility. In our eyes, all the things we can’t predict with false precision, of all the things we can’t predict, there are a few key threads of change we can say, I would say with accuracy, will occur.

Now, we can debate how quickly they will occur and exactly the process by which they occur. But in our view, the world is electrifying. And that’s sort of called the foundational vector of change, and whether you think that’s five years from now or 100 years from now, it will happen. Perhaps that’s the easy one to see, and perhaps it seems the biggest, but the second, and I would say much more interesting, is a shift toward increasing levels of machine operation. And in a time equals infinite state, truly, fully self-driving vehicles. And then because of that, a shift in how we consume vehicles.

So those three vectors of change — electrification, self-driving, and new consumption models — that sits at the absolute core of everything we’re doing. So what we’re launching with in 2020 is launching into sort of still the beginning of this transformation. But that launch strategy needs to be characterized and defined by the end-state vision of what we see happening over the coming decades.

And they need to be aligned in terms of what we do in 2020 needs to fit with what we’ll be doing in 2030. So, to be honest with you, a lot of that took a lot of thinking on our side in terms of what we were doing as a company. When I first started, really the focus was really heavily on powertrain technology and vehicle architecture, not as much on what’s happening with regard to the customer model, what’s happening with regards to the vehicle operation and self-driving.

As we started to understand what those macro-level changes meant from a mobility point of view and from an industry point of view, that’s what really drove a lot of the redefinition of our brand and how we’re positioning ourselves. And that was also the context of looking at what other players were doing and making sure we were answering a question that others weren’t answering, making sure we were providing something for the world that didn’t exist.

So much of the conversation revolves around whether or not cars are going electric, and then you really think how in the grand scheme of what could change to the industry, and how consumers interface with the auto industry, that’s the smallest change. It’s like talking about a different composition of tire.

Electrification is a foundational piece. It needs to be there. But in terms of how it affects society and our daily lives, it’s much smaller than what the shift toward autonomy represents, and what the shift toward new customer models represents. That’s the one that’s going to have the biggest impact on my kids or my kids’ kids will be those vectors of change. So we have to contemplate all of that as we design our strategy and design our technology platform.

It’s also the one that’s perhaps the most difficult to predict with precision — the timing of which it will all play out and the path in which those will become the way of life that we know. And to define that, that’s why we exist. We exist to drive the “when,” to pull that as forward as possible, and to really define the “how,” to provide our perspective and how to exist in the future.