Our Rivian CEO Interview: Answering America’s Need For Utility & Adventure Electric Vehicles
Recently, we met with Rivian’s founder and CEO, Robert “RJ” Scaringe, for an in-depth look into the wild Rivian adventure. What we found was a dynamic team building products in unfulfilled segments of the electric vehicle (EV) revolution — SUVs and pickup trucks. Now, finally, America has what it’s been waiting for — it’s big, it’s green, it’s off-road, and it’s electric.
Rivian Answering America’s Love of Big Cars in a Green Way
RJ Scaringe is a classic car guy who likes efficiency. We share a common wish. Why not have classic cars with modern electric drivetrains? I asked what possessed Rivian to build an electric SUV and pickup truck when everyone else is focusing on small to crossover electric vehicles?
Having spent a decade under the radar, starting in 2009 at one of the worst times to invest in a car company, this MIT Ph.D. automotive engineer decided the world needed another EV. But RJ knew it had to be different, with a new architecture, a new building process, and something that answered a real need, not hype. RJ started with a clean sheet and designed Rivian’s first vehicle, a coupe.
Getting investors onboard a decade ago was no easy task. Early on, Rivian focused on building a core technology team with the right EV competencies — again, not easy a decade ago. The team grew to over 600 employees over the following decade, discreetly.
Rivian now has an ex-Mitsubishi plant and purpose-designed in-house software. The coupe was dropped and RJ went for the gusto, designing something until now no other automaker dared to touch, an electric pickup truck (and an electric SUV).
Rivian Takes on the Big, Bold EV Challenge — Trucks & SUVs
Rivian wants its SUVs and pickup trucks to be fun to drive both on and off the road. They need to have decent acceleration with a high enough ride. Overall, they need to be at least 10% better than the competition wants to be. According to what I’ve seen in its Irvine, California, lab, Rivian will succeed. (Editor’s note: Nicolas wrote this before the Amazon news broke, and also before the Amazon + GM rumor.)
Thousands of analyses and decisions later, RJ and the team finalized a battery pack and layout configuration. The team saw even more potential than originally thought. That was the reason for switching to a larger vehicle.
The last challenges were figuring out what big vehicle drivers wanted and how to manufacture the vehicles efficiently. The answer to the first question was an off-road green vehicle, something no domestic automaker has produced to date.
RJ told me that he found there is a wish to get dirty, to throw the kids in the vehicle, and to go off-road for adventures in the US. But EVs are mostly cool and trendy road cars. I asked if Subaru is what Rivian is going after and the answer was Subaru meets Land Rover.
Rivian Gets Down, Tests Everything, & In-Houses Like Tesla
Technology evolved enough in the past decade to make a 400-mile range EV. The amount of research Rivian did quietly over that decade is impressive.
Contrary to how conventional automakers contract out many components and systems, Rivian used as many off-the-shelves products as possible, and then designed and built most of the rest in-house. The testing is inspiring, with many systems developed from scratch.
Almost everything is tested onsite — its cloud platform, vehicle technology, and components. It was a sight to see hundreds of cells tested individually under different loads and simulating various weather extremes. They are then assembled as sub-modules, modules, and eventually packs. The assembly line has been tested and simulated and the company is now ready to try it out in its plant. Basically, RJ wanted to make sure its Rivian EVs could be driven hard in almost any weather.
Predicting how drivers will use their EVs is something Rivian has been working on. Tests adjusting battery management according to predictive driving, and later driver input, are key to the success of Rivian EVs. Much of its software, developed by the home team, aims to squeeze out as much performance and reliability as it can from the battery pack. Nothing seems to have been left to chance.
It was impressive to see the amount of work, testing, and simulation this startup initiated on its own.
In the end, 864 cells form a pack composed of sub-modules. I like the solution Rivian chose to cool its modules. It chose a cooling plate in the middle of each module, making cooling easier inside the modules.
As far as distribution, Rivian favors its own dealership network, but it is flexible on this topic.
Rivian = Electric Outdoors & Adventures
Rivian strikes a careful balance between designing components in-house and using off-the-shelf components, a startup success recipe that works well. The R1T and R1S will come with Level 3 autonomous upgradable levels. No word yet on when Level 4 will happen.
I walked away feeling I would be in good hands driving a Rivian EV. I had reservations at first about the company, but seeing the amount of deep work — the serious testing and prototyping the company has done — shows it is on the right road (pun intended).
Rivian is about to show Wall Street and US automakers that real off-road electric SUVs and pickup trucks can happen now. There are no more excuses.