Rivian CEO Rivets Future of Electric-Truck Startup To Independence

Photo credit: Rivian

General Motors CEO Mary Barra is used to getting her way, from becoming the first chief of a major auto company in 2014 to closing a bunch of North American operations recently above the vociferous objections of union leaders and even President Trump.

But then Barra ran into R.J. Scaringe. He’s the CEO of Rivian, a company that’s only a tiny startup in the automotive industry, compared with the century-old behemoth that Barra runs. But Scaringe had enough faith in the future of his remarkable electric-truck and -SUV proposition that he spurned an offer by GM to take an equity stake in Rivian.

Such a deal may have helped Rivian get to market much faster and could have given GM a worthy EV offering in its most important vehicle categories more quickly than otherwise. But Scaringe demurred after negotiations.

“In general, my reason for starting Rivian was to do big things without anything preventing us from doing that,” Scaringe told Automotive News on the sidelines of the New York International Auto Show. He declined to mention GM specifically.

For now, Rivian is planning to make a half-dozen different pickups and SUVs of varying sizes in its plant in Normal, Illinois, a former Mitsubishi Motors Corp. facility that Rivian bought for a mere $13 million.

Of course, Rivian already had a major financial backer of a very different sort: A group led by Amazon recently kicked in $700 million in funding for the stripling concern even though Rivian is based not in Silicon Valley but in Plymouth, Michigan, near Detroit. Rivian has attracted overall investments of $1.15 billion including initial stakes by Japan’s Sumitomo Corp. and Saudi auto distributor Abdul Latif.

In Rivian’s technology, Amazon could see a quick path toward harnessing a fleet of its own electric delivery vehicles to give it more leverage in a market now controlled by FedEx and UPS. Scaringe told Automotive News that one of the several vehicles Rivian is planning to field by 2025 is related to the Amazon deal. For his part, Scaringe said in a press statement that Amazon could help Rivian “drive innovation across the entire customer experience.”

One reason for his Muskian confidence is that Rivian clearly is more than just a me-too or a wanna-be in an electric-vehicle business that has spawned a lot of new entries since the initial success of Tesla as an all-electric sports car for the wealthy and the establishment of the low end of the market by Nissan’s Leaf. Now nearly every global automaker, from luxury marques on down, has begun peppering every major geographic market with all-electric offerings that rival Teslas in performance, styling and every other spec – except a sort of mystique.

With Rivian’s proposition, Scaringe hopes to beat Musk to market with an electric pickup truck, though Tesla already has an all-electric crossover utility vehicle. Rivian could stake out a unique identity with the kind of rugged all-electric, truck-based models that no one has introduced yet.

Rivian introduced its concept models to rave reviews at the Los Angeles Auto Show last fall. They promise as much as 400 miles of driving range compared with the roughly 250-mile ceilings of current all-electric car models such as Teslas and GM’s Chevrolet Bolt.

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Dale Buss: Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.