Rivian CEO R.J. Scaringe wants his startup to be the Patagonia of electric cars

rivian rj scaringe interview r1s
Rivian R1S Rivian

Rivian took the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show by storm with its first two vehicles – the R1T pickup truck and R1S seven-seat SUV. Both are all-electric, both are based on the same skateboard-style chassis, and both feature impressive performance figures. Rivian claims the R1T and R1S will offer up to 400 miles of range, or the ability to do zero to 60 mph in 3.0 seconds. That’s a good time for a supercar, let alone burly trucks that, according to Rivian, will also have genuine off-road ability. The company hopes to start production at a former Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Illinois, in 2020.

Rivian is far from the only startup looking to build electric cars, but most others are focusing on Tesla-baiting luxury sedans and crossovers. To find out why Rivian decided to go off the beaten path – both literally and figuratively. Digital Trends caught up with founder and CEO R.J. Scaringe at Rivian’s L.A. Auto Show stand.

Digital Trends: Rivian came out of stealth mode at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show. How long were you building up to that?

R.J. Scaringe: We started the company in 2009. Initially we were doing a very different product. We developed that for a couple of years, ultimately shelved it, and switched to this at the end of 2011.

rivian rj scaringe interview
Founder and CEO of Rivian, R.J. Scaringe

Over the last seven years we’ve really been focused 100 percent on developing all of the technology, building the organization, getting the supply base built, and putting all of the capital in place. We [also] purchased a plant.

The launching of a business like this takes many pieces that have to be arranged. So we wanted to wait to show this until we had all of those pieces arranged. We wanted to have the team in place – we have a 600-person team – have the supply chain in place – we have several hundred suppliers, have them in the factory. We purchased a plant, we have all of the capital, all of the financial backing in place.

Once all of those things were in place, of course the technology in the vehicle had to be proven. What you see here is what customers will take delivery on starting in about a little less than two years.

You said you started out developing a different product, was it still automotive?

Originally it was a coupe, essentially a sports car. What we realized was that the market for that, and the opportunity for that, and our internal excitement for what we were creating, we knew it just wasn’t going to have the impact that we were trying to generate.

We were doing a very different product. We developed that for a couple of years, ultimately shelved it, and switched to this.

We wanted to go into a space around adventure, and activity, and carrying gear, your pets, your stuff. We chose the pickup and the SUV as the platform to launch the brand.

A lot of other electric-car startups go with performance-oriented luxury vehicles. Once you decided that you weren’t interested in that, how did you end up with an SUV and a pickup truck?

Any company, not just Rivian, should be able to answer the fundamental question of “why do you exist?” What’s your reason for being? Why should customers care? Why should the world have this company?

Rivian RT1 Rivian

We felt there was a lot of activity going into things that were less about function and more about presentation. So, if you draw an analogy to clothing, more Armani than Patagonia. We decided that we wanted to focus on the more functional side, things that had a lot of utility, could get dirty, could take your family places. Then we began the long process of defining what this product was, developing the technology, and putting it all together.

Rivian uses a skateboard architecture, where all of the mechanical components are contained in the chassis. What makes this different from a traditional body-on-frame design, where a body is just plopped onto a separate chassis?

Our skateboard integrates the battery system, and we have up to a 180-kilowatt-hour battery, the drive system where we have quad motors, two per axle, one per wheel, which allows us to very precisely control torque at each wheel, an air suspension system which features a double wishbone in front and multilink in the rear, coupled with active roll control and active damping.

We decided that we wanted to focus on the more functional side.

What that gives us in this skateboard is a breadth of performance for both on-road and off-road that you’ve never seen before. It’s really good on-road, it’s quick. It handles like a sports sedan, given the low center of gravity of the battery system. But, off-road, it resets expectations of what a vehicle can do.

We mechanically fasten that [skateboard chassis] to the upper body, but it’s a hard mounting. A traditional truck soft mounts the body to the frame, so there’s movement between the body and the frame. Here, they’re rigidly mounted to one another, and the vehicle itself is very stiff, unlike a traditional body-on-frame truck.

And we put all of the movement into the suspension, which really helps us from a ride quality point of view. The ride quality is unlike any truck or SUV you’ve seen before.

How do you get that precise torque control you mentioned?

Because we have one motor per wheel, each motor has complete control of that wheel. It can send as much torque [as you want] in any direction instantaneously. We can use that if we’re sensing any sort of wheel slip. If it’s on one wheel, we can direct torque to another wheel. But unlike a mechanical differential, which mechanically sends torque from one wheel to another, front to back, in a vehicle, we do this digitally through the control system.

Rivian RT1 Rivian

How do you plan on marketing electric power toward a truck buyer rather than the luxury-car buyers other startups seem to be aiming for?

In our view, to get people interested in something that’s new – new brand, new technology, new type of vehicle – we have to be demonstrative about it. We have to be significantly better than what the existing alternatives are. So that means the performance needs to be better, the elimination of the traditional tradeoffs needs to be there. It needs to be great on-road, great off-road, be able to fit your gear, and simultaneously look elegant and sophisticated.

If we do all of those things well, it will generate interest and customers. That’s what’s driven me, and the team, over the last several years to make thousands and thousands of decisions to align everything in the product to be something that is remarkably different than what’s out there today.

This will draw attention from people that are maybe in a traditional pickup today. Or they might be in a Land Rover today, or they might be in a Tesla today. It will pull customers from a variety of different vehicle types to look at this, because it provides a unique combination of attributes.

Do you see Rivian launching any follow-up models to the R1S and R1T? Maybe something at a lower price point?

We have a portfolio of vehicles that leverage our skateboard.

Following these two, although we’re not showing them today, we have a portfolio of vehicles that leverage our skateboard. They’re all very exciting, and the third, fourth, and fifth vehicles will continue to focus on adventure, combining a very high level of performance on-road and off-road, with a very high level of function and utility, with a high level of everyday usability.

Finally, where did the name “Rivian” come from?

It’s a combination of words. It takes the word “river” and the word “Indian.” I grew up on the Indian River in Florida. It mixes the first three letters of the word “river” with the last three letters of the word “Indian.”

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