Rivian is seeking adventurous buyers—or those aspiring to appear adventurous, anyway—who can afford to shell out around $60,000 for an entry-level model. That’s about a third more than they’d pay for an equivalent gas- or diesel-powered pickup, although the higher sticker price is offset to some degree by federal EV tax credits, state rebate programs, and lower lifetime fuel costs. What they’ll get for their money is a truck that, depending on battery configuration, can go up to 400 miles on a single charge and accelerate from 0 to 60 in as little as three seconds flat. The R1T is rated for towing 11,000 pounds, making it easily as muscular as a no-frills F-150 or Ram. Some models can even, upon command, execute a stand-in-place, 360-degree “tank turn.” All Rivians will come equipped with semiautonomous modes and an Alexa assistant. And, like Scaringe himself, the upholstery will be vegan.
The company still faces a climb of extraordinary technical and economic difficulty. Relaxing one afternoon at Rivian’s engineering and design center in Plymouth, Michigan, Scaringe, now 37, ticked off a list of obstacles. There is, first of all, the challenge of appealing to truck traditionalists. Some buyers, one auto analyst told me, might be unwilling to give up the ineffable feeling of “truckness” they get behind the wheel of, say, a Silverado. And even green fanatics aren’t guaranteed customers: So far, any electric vehicle that doesn’t have the Tesla badge has found it nearly impossible to gain a foothold in the American market, with sales of non-Tesla EVs actually declining last year across the board. Meanwhile, a host of new competitors—including Arrival, a startup backed by Kia and Hyundai, and Bollinger, whose vehicles resemble boxy, retro Jeeps—are nipping at Rivian’s heels.
To Rivian’s good fortune—or, possibly, its utter ruin—it has the support of a wealthy, well-connected patron. Last year, at a press conference in Washington, DC, Jeff Bezos announced what he called the Climate Pledge, committing Amazon to decarbonizing its operations by 2040. To meet its goal without delaying world domination, the company will need an immense new fleet of zero-emissions delivery vans. Rivian has committed to designing and building the first 10,000 for Amazon by 2022, with another 90,000 due by 2030. There will be little room for failure, Scaringe says: “We cannot be late in delivering those vehicles.”
Rivian’s headquarters are located on the outskirts of Plymouth, a small city 30 minutes west of Detroit, in a refurbished factory that once produced compasses, gunsights, and adding machines. The offices—home to about 800 employees, with the rest of the firm’s 2,000 workers situated in Illinois, on the West Coast, and in Europe—are brightened by whitewashed walls and high clerestory windows. Rivian has installed display tables along the periphery, filled with hundreds of items (carabiners, US National Park stickers, chic rucksacks, mesh sneakers, titanium camping mugs) that are meant to remind employees of the sort of customer they’re aiming to entice. In a central atrium, sunlight pours down onto a silver-blue prototype R1T, a point of keen interest for visiting parts suppliers. Arguably, though, it’s the Amazon van, parked a few feet away, that may drive the company into viability.
The van isn’t real. It’s made of clay and wrapped in blue plastic. Rivian’s actual Amazon prototypes remain mostly in stealth mode while the companies sort out design requirements and technical specs. Once that process is complete, the largest hurdle for Scaringe’s team will be mass manufacturing—a challenge so difficult it nearly broke Tesla during its scale-up of the Model 3, leading Elon Musk to camp out at his factory overnight. Rivian’s task may be even harder than Tesla’s was: The company must produce a truck, an SUV, and a huge fleet of vans without ever having made a single car. And that’s just in the next couple of years. While no timeline has been announced, the firm also plans to make a large SUV for Ford-Lincoln and a small SUV under the Rivian brand.
The link between these projects—the feat of engineering that makes them conceivably doable—is Rivian’s so-called skateboard chassis. The company takes a single common platform, adds various combinations of battery packs, drivetrains, and motors, then “top-hats” the vehicles with different bodies to create distinctive models. The skateboard isn’t quite one-size-fits-all: The Amazon van has by far the largest chassis, and the R1S the smallest. But the basic engineering is the same. As Michael Bell, who oversaw software development for Rivian until February, told me, “having a well-documented, defined, abstracted platform allows you to just move faster.” In theory, the company can use its standard dough recipe to make any size pizza, with any kind of toppings, and do it exceedingly quickly.
The responsibility for integrating these platforms and vehicle designs falls mainly on Mark Vinnels, Rivian’s chief engineer. Vinnels, who came to the company two years ago from McLaren, the luxury British sports car builder, is usually in one of two places—test-driving prototypes at the Toyota Arizona Proving Grounds or taking meetings in his office in Plymouth. He speaks with a thick English accent and at a clip that approximates a McLaren roadster’s. When I visited him in Plymouth, he said he was going “1,000 miles an hour,” racing to complete technical sign-off on the R1T. There were crash tests to run, range numbers to confirm with the EPA, components to check for quality and durability. But Vinnels didn’t seem especially concerned. “With the skateboard, you can pretty much put a seat and a steering wheel on this and drive it away,” he said. He paused, then asked, “Do you want to go see some hardware?”