Rivian takes on Tesla with big batteries and subtler approach

Ford and Amazon are ploughing many millions into the electric pick-up truck start-up

 

While Tesla has become synonymous in our heads with electric cars, there is another, so far less showy, American electric start-up that has the potential to be even more influential than Elon Musk’s outfit. Rivian.

The little-heralded electric car maker recently received a new round of funding, some $1.3 billion, and much of that came from two sources, Amazon and Ford. You could hardly think of two companies that have had greater influence on our economic and social discourse at the beginnings of, respectively, the 20th and 21st centuries, and they are both putting their money into Rivian.

It’s not the first investment by either the car-making nor retail giant. Earlier in 2019, Ford had already invested €500 million in Rivian, while Amazon announced it was collaborating with the electric car maker on the development of a new electric delivery van and that it had already placed an order for 100,000 of these, with Amazon-liveried deliveries due to start in 2021. This is a company that is yet to put its two models, the R1T pick-up and R1S SUV, into series production.

“This investment demonstrates confidence in our team, products, technology and strategy – we are extremely excited to have the support from such strong shareholders,” said Rivian founder and chief executive RJ Scaringe.

“We’re launching two vehicles that reimagine the pick-up and SUV segments. I started Rivian to deliver products that the world didn’t already have - to redefine expectations through the application of technology and innovation. Starting with a clean sheet, we have spent years developing the technology to deliver the ideal vehicle for active customers. This means having great driving dynamics on any surface on or off road, providing cargo solutions to easily store any type of gear, whether it’s a surfboard or a fishing rod and, very importantly, being capable of driving long distances on a single charge. From the inside out, Rivian has developed its vehicles with adventurers at the core of every design and engineering decision. The R1T and R1S are the result of all this work and we are excited to finally introduce these products to the world.”

Of all the Tesla-rivalling start-ups, Rivian looks to be one of the more interesting. Or possibly the more outlandish, depending on your point of view. The Michigan-based electric car maker has shown concept versions of both a large pick-up truck and a seven-seat SUV – two car categories American car buyers can apparently not get enough of.

Astonishing claims

The Rivian vehicles, based around a common “skateboard-like” platform, will – assuming they do make it to production – come with a 105kWh battery stack with a nominal range of about 300km, or a huge 180kWh battery that can power the cars for more than 650km. That’s not the most astonishing part. The astonishing part is that Rivian claims to be able to harness their electric motors’ low-down torque, and the cars’ all-wheel drive traction, to be able to accelerate from standstill to beyond 97km/h in 2.8 seconds. In other words, a pick-up truck and a big family SUV, both capable of towing more than 5,000kg of trailer weight, that can beat a Lamborghini away from the traffic lights.

According to Rivian, the company “is made up of more than 700 adventurous individuals and counting. We’re beginning by electrifying trucks and SUVs, because they are often the most-polluting vehicles on the road, a problem for people like us, who want to stay active and require a ride that is capable of handling every kind of terrain skilfully, and hauling all kinds of gear, and loved ones, effortlessly.”

Rivian has also shown off its unique Tank Turn technology. Because it uses an individual motor for each wheel, on soft or sandy ground the motors on one side can be made to turn in the opposite direction to those on the other, spinning the Rivian around in its own length. It’s a neat trick, and potentially a useful one as much as a bit of theatre. Don’t try it on tarmac, though – the friction would burn out a motor or rip off a wheel. Scaringe has said that he already has another four models, all based around the same modular “skateboard” chassis, on the drawing board, so there’s clearly ambition aplenty there.

Rivian’s designs – the R1T pick-up, and the closely related R1S seven-seat SUV – are clean and simple, and really rather attractive – certainly far less abrasive than Tesla’s recently launched Cybertruck. That’s not what has attracted investment from Ford, though. No, what Ford wants is access to that “skateboard” battery stack and Rivian’s efficient electric motors as it works on developing what might just be the Blue Oval’s holy grail; an electric F-150 pick-up.

Tapering business

It would not be exaggerating to say that Ford is essentially a company that makes the F150 pick-up and some other cars. The pick-up, and its spin-off variants, have been the company’s main driver of sales and profits for decades now, but it’s starting to taper off. A future all-electric F-150 has been confirmed as being in development, and this is where Rivian’s chance to be hugely, dramatically influential lies.

If Rivian’s skateboard battery tech does indeed come to underpin a future F-150, then the company has the chance to put a little bit of itself on millions upon millions of driveways. Ford may well take the credit and the sales, but it could well be that it’s Rivian’s tech that the Blue Oval needs to truly kick-start its second century.

The Amazon deal could, ultimately, be even more significant. Initially, as part of Jeff Bezos’s plans to make Amazon a less carbon-intensive company, the retail giant has initially ordered 10,000 electric delivery vans from Rivian, based on the same skateboard platform as the pick-up and the SUV. Bezos has also said he wants to have all 100,000 zero-emissions vans, all built by Rivian, on the road by 2024. We shall have to wait and see if such a timetable can be kept to in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

If such comes to pass, then Scaringe will have played a formidable nutmeg against his rival, Elon Musk. While the latter has played up his outsider status, often to grating and litigious effect, Scaringe is playing a softer, quieter game and rather than disrupting or antagonising the existing major car makers and other industries, is cosying up to them and working with them. Musk tried that, initially, with Toyota, but found that collaboration wasn’t to his taste. Only history will decide which, if either, approach was right.

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