A Q&A With Rivian, the Amazon-Backed Electric Truck Startup
CEO R.J. Scaringe’s vision is to eliminate the compromises drivers make around performance, usability and energy efficiency—and to deliver that vision to customers by late 2020.
Rivian Automotive generated a lot of buzz last week with the news that Amazon would lead a $700 million investment in the American electric truck startup.
The investment represents an important milestone for Rivian and the broader shift to sustainable mobility. While terms of the deal were not disclosed, this represents Amazon’s biggest bet to date on technology that could shape the future of transportation.
“We’re inspired by Rivian’s vision for the future of electric transportation,” said Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon’s worldwide consumer division, in a statement. “R.J. has built an impressive organization, with a product portfolio and technology to match. We’re thrilled to invest in such an innovative company.”
R.J. Scaringe, Rivian’s founder and CEO, has been heaped with praise since he introduced the R1T, an all-electric “adventure” pickup truck, and the R1S, an all-electric SUV, at the L.A. Auto Show last November. Both vehicles will offer more than 400 miles of electric range, off-roading capability and autonomous highway driving.
Scaringe’s vision is to eliminate the compromises that exist around vehicle performance, usability and energy efficiency — and to deliver that vision to customers by late 2020.
Despite these big promises, Rivian has managed to avoid the worst aspects of the hype cycle, which have hurt other e-mobility startups.
Singer Rihanna attended the company’s high-profile launch party in L.A. last fall with her boyfriend Hassan Jameel, who is deputy vice chairman of Saudi-based Abdul Latif Jameel Co., an early Rivian investor. But rather than rely on star power to tell Rivian’s story, Scaringe delivered a polished and straightforward unveiling of the R1T and the R1S the following day, where he outlined the vehicles’ numerous high-end and high-tech attributes — including their quad electric motors, 0 to 60 mph acceleration in three seconds, and flexible “skateboard” platform.
While the R1T and the R1S are tricked out with consumer-friendly features, Amazon is reportedly looking at Rivian as a partner to develop its delivery vehicles and build out its logistics network. According to Reuters, General Motors is also exploring an investment in the electric truck startup, with talks still ongoing.
Sources say Rivian ultimately could be valued at between $3 billion and $4 billion.
GTM spoke with CEO R.J. Scaringe late last year to learn more about Rivian’s electric vehicles and his broader mobility vision. At the time, Rivian had already raised around $500 million and hired 600 employees. In light of recent news, total known investment has climbed to roughly $1.2 billion and the company now has a staff of 750 people.
In the conversation below (which has been edited for clarity and flow), Scaringe, a 36-year-old entrepreneur with a doctorate from the Sloan Automotive Lab at MIT, provides more detail on the Rivian’s technology and go-to-market strategy. He also describes the company’s early trials and tribulations, and how he launched a long-range, luxury electric truck that major industry players are taking very seriously.
Q&A with Rivian’s R.J. Scaringe
Julia Pyper: Tell me about the “skateboard” technology that underpins Rivian’s vehicles. What’s included in the platform, and how did you design it to achieve the impressive power and range offered in the R1S and the R1T?
R.J. Scaringe: The skateboard is the heart of the vehicle. All of our vehicles are built on this common architecture. It’s shared between the R1S and R1T, the truck and the SUV. It also will sit under a host of other vehicles within the portfolio, which we haven’t shown yet.
At the heart of [the skateboard] is the battery system and a drive system for both the front and the rear of the vehicle. The drive system is a quad motor setup, one motor per wheel going into a single reduction gear. It gives us beautifully precise torque control at each wheel, because we have a digital motor control in each wheel.
Then it includes the chassis system, so all of the braking and…an air suspension system, with active roll control and adaptive damping. And then, of course, the thermal system within the vehicle. Those are the large physical components that are contained within the skateboard.
What we also consider to be part of our skateboard is the digital platform, the network architecture, and we’ve completely designed that from a clean sheet. That gives us a level of network security and the ability to manage and move data both within and outside of the vehicle. That’s really beyond what we’ve seen or what’s available today in the market.
So to do that we have very strong in-house electronics and software teams. We do the autonomous control module, we do the vehicle dynamics module, we do the battery management system, we do the experience management, we do thermal management…and we have the telematics module. All of these are done in-house to give us precise control of the data, but, most importantly, secure management of the data within the vehicle.
JP: At the vehicle launch, you talked about optimizing the battery for better performance. What did you mean by that?
RS: In the BMS [battery management system] scenario, we’ve spent, as you might imagine, a huge amount of time optimizing it and designing it to be a smart BMS, where it learns each individual user’s behaviors and statistically understands how you drive, and perhaps more importantly, how you charge. And, depending on those behaviors, it adjusts. It’s constantly making adjustments…to optimize for battery health and for performance.
JP: Have you revealed who your battery supplier is?
RS: We haven’t revealed the supplier, but we will very soon. It’s a very large, well-known battery supplier, we can say that. And it’s a 21700 configuration.
JP: Batteries on the R1S and the R1T range from 105 kilowatt-hours to 180 kilowatt-hours. Why has no one launched a consumer vehicle with such powerful, long-range batteries before? What enabled you to do that?
RS: So we’ve been able to package a lot of energy into a tight area. The efficiency is among the highest in the world. And the skateboard architecture allows 180 kilowatt-hours to sit in that single layer at the bottom of the vehicle. Of course, the energy density on cells has come up and the cost of those cells come down quite a bit. Acknowledging that, we package the vehicle to fit just a tremendous amount of energy. And the cooling systems we’ve designed are what really enable us to pack so many cells in such a tight area.
JP: What is Rivian’s organizational structure? Where are you building these EVs and their components?
RS: We essentially do all of the mechanical bits of the vehicle just outside of Detroit, the things that have be physically bolted together and require manufacturing, supply chain, mechanical engineering capabilities and an understanding of the knowledge that’s been built up around automotive engineering over the last century.
And then all of the high-technology areas — software, control systems, etc. — are done on the West Coast in San Jose. That’s where we do our connectivity cloud architecture, we do our connected experience and infotainment, and we do our self-driving platform.
In Southern California, in Irvine, we do our battery system development, the module and pack, as well as the BMS. Currently, we have a pilot line that builds our battery systems in Irvine. But the production line will ultimately be at our production facility in Illinois, where we have a 2.6-million-square-foot plant that’s being set up as we speak. And perhaps the most significant thing relating to it is the automated battery assembly line.
So Detroit, think of it as vehicle engineering, San Jose is self-driving and connectivity, Irvine is propulsion and battery system development, and Normal, Illinois is vehicle assembly and vehicle production.
JP: You originally started working on Rivian in 2009. How hard has it been to get to this point?
RS: To create a company to make a product as complex as this has taken a lot of time and many years of effort. This is not something you can do with 50 people or even 100 people. You need a team of hundreds of people, 500+ people at a minimum. You need hundreds of suppliers providing the thousands of parts that go into the car. You need hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of capital. You need a production facility capable of producing at scale. And of course, you need to have technology that’s differentiated and actually provides a reason for customers to pick you over an existing option. And then it needs to have a design and the brand position, the market position, that’s unique.
So we’re by no means following a straight line. It’s been a blurry, sort of squiggly line in some cases, where it’s been challenging in many ways and there have been lots of roadblocks.
But we have absolutely world-class talent. We’ve got several hundred suppliers all committed to providing the thousands of parts going into the vehicle. We’ve raised substantial capital from a very committed set of shareholders that can fully back the business as we continue to build and scale it. We’ve got the production plant I just described. We’ve developed the technology, and we’ve wrapped that into a product that we don’t really see.
JP: So how did you get the initial funding that enabled you to scale?
RS: It was really hard. When I first started the company, we had no money, no teams, no capital, no suppliers, no technology and no product. And, frankly, if I knew how hard it was going to be, I may have felt differently. But ultimately I was able to put together a very small amount of money, a couple of million dollars in early investment.
The initial product was more of a coupe. It was essentially a sports-car product. We developed that for about two-and-a-half years, and by the end of 2011, we reached, in many ways, the classic fork in the road. We had 20 people at the company and a neat little prototype, but for all intents and purposes, we’d failed at raising any significant capital. So the fork was either to continue down the path I was on, hoping, fingers-crossed, that something would change, or accept that we had to really rethink the business. Of course, I took the latter approach. and we shelved the coupe and the original program when we had about a year of capital to survive.
I then began the process of redefining the strategy to really make sure that the products we were developing, the technology we’re building, was needed — that the world actually needed this thing.
Then I began focusing on how to find somebody to sponsor this idea of creating products for adventure, for function, that eliminates the compromise we’ve grown so used to accepting. Ultimately, I went back to MIT, where I did my Ph.D., and that is where I connected with the Jameel family. [Abdul Latif Jameel Co.] is a very large multinational conglomerate, but their core business is in automotive distribution, up and down the value chain. And, serendipitously, they were thinking about how they take a position and help drive this shift to future mobility.
We began the process of them sponsoring Rivian, and it went from a small investment to a medium investment to, of course, now a much larger investment. And along the way we’ve brought other shareholders into the business.
JP: Your launch at the L.A. Auto Show was praised for being very professional. Flashy EV unveilings are fairly common these days and invite criticism as a result. How did you avoid overhyping your products?
RS: The reason we’ve been so quiet was not to hide what we’ve been doing. […] It was to position ourselves until everything was ready, and then show the world and start talking to customers. What’s happened now is the whole world’s become so confused with all these different new [future mobility products], because most of them are presented as being [more] developed than they actually are.
We want to sort of under-promise and over-deliver. So we took the decision to not say anything until we were truly ready. […] And when we made those statements, to not be making statements that are hot air but rather be making statements of fact.
And people still, even now, are saying, “Well, that’s not going to be possible. They won’t be able to get that kind of acceleration or they won’t be able to get that kind of range.” And that’s after we waited a very long time to show [the R1T and the R1S]. So that’s what the thought has been, to under-hype as much as possible.
JP: Let’s discuss pricing. You announced that the electric truck will start at $69,000 before tax incentives, and the SUV at $72,500. It’s important to note that these prices are for the shorter-range versions of the R1T and the R1S. Presumably the 400-mile range vehicles will be even more expensive. Do you foresee price being a speed bump for the company?
RS: I think that may seem high, but we have to take the context of really two things. First, we’ve strategically positioned ourselves to go after the aspirational side of this market. It’s really important to make that note; we’re not trying to compete with a $25,000 or $30,000 truck or SUV. This is a very high-performance [vehicle] and very technically advanced in terms of self-driving, in terms of connectivity architecture, in terms of battery size. The segment is going after the people who are spending $70,000 or $80,000 on a GMC Denali or a Chevy Suburban or a Land Rover Discovery or a fully loaded Ford F150.
So we’ve intentionally made sure that we’ve architected the vehicle for that premium positioning. If you come into the bottom of the markets, it’s very, very hard to push new technology.
JP: Have you announced pricing for the 400-mile range truck and SUV?
RS: We haven’t yet. But we will have a version of the big-range vehicle that’s sub-$90,000.
JP: At the Rivian launch, you talked about features like the additional trunks and usable plugs in the back of the vehicle. How important are those consumer goodies in getting people to get excited about your products?
RS: That’s a great question. So we think a lot about where we put dollars, because every feature we have in the vehicle has a cost. The vehicle is essentially the result of, without exaggeration, tens of thousands of decisions that are being made by 600 people. And so these tens of thousands of decisions all have to line up to a single point: What’s the vision for the vehicle? The vision for the company? For us, it’s the combination of three things that typically do not go together: a very high level of performance, coupled with a very high level of efficiency, coupled with a very high level of utility.
JP: What is your “future mobility” vision?
RS: An off-road vehicle that’s incredible on-road. That is simultaneously efficient, and super useful. That is quick, 0 to 60 in three seconds, with a range that is significant, over 400 miles. A vehicle with ample storage capabilities — the truck and the SUV have front trunks that are three times larger than the biggest front trunk in the world today. And then a gear tunnel where we can fit stuff down the middle of vehicles, snowboards and strollers and golf bags, very easily. So no matter where you drive it, [this vehicle] should really be the best.
On a personal note, I’m someone who loves to be outdoors. What always bothered me is the way I would get there, where there’s biking or skiing, because I’d be driving in something that makes the thing I am going to enjoy worse. Meaning, it makes the environment worse.
And we see in the market today a lot of people are struggling with this as well, who may end up having two very different types of vehicles. You’d be shocked at how common it is for people to have an electric car next to a giant 16-mpg SUV. So we said, “Let’s allow them to not have [to make] that compromise.” They can have something that carries all their gear and can still do the trips that they dream about, in an efficient electric format.