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STARTUP

This Secretive Electric Car Startup Is Emerging From Stealth Mode With 600 Employees and Half a Billion in Funding

Rivian wants to turn adventure vehicles–typically gas guzzlers–into fully electric cars.

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BY Kevin J. Ryan - 26 Nov 2018

secretive electric car startup

The Rivian R1T, an electric pickup truck revealed on Monday. CREDIT: Courtesy Rivian

After nine years of secrecy, an electric car startup with a whole lot of funding is revealing its vehicles to the public.

On Monday, San Jose, California-based Rivian unveiled its pickup truck at an event in Los Angeles, the first of two gas-free cars the company is revealing this week. Founded by MIT grad R.J. Scaringe in 2009, the company has racked up more than $500 million in funding while keeping a tight lid on its futuristic-looking designs.

On Tuesday, the startup will pull the lid off its SUV. Rivian says neither car will be available until 2020.

The company claims the most powerful version of its vehicles can travel more than 400 miles on a single charge. By comparison, Tesla advertises that its Model 3 sedan can travel 310 miles per charge.

Scaringe, who grew up restoring classic cars and earned his PhD in automotive mechanical engineering, founded the company with the goal of creating adventure vehicles that didn't rely on gas. The startup has been operating in stealth mode ever since; until six weeks ago, its facilities in California, Michigan, Illinois, and the U.K. didn't have any Rivian signage.

"We decided, given all the twists and challenges, to be very quiet in those early years," Scaringe says. "We said, 'Let's wait until we're ready to show the world that we've actually arranged all these pieces.' And all those pieces are now in place."

Even while it's remained mostly out of the public eye, the company already employs more than 600 people across several states. In 2016, it bought a Mitsubishi vehicle production plant in Normal, Illinois, that had been shuttered the previous year. The startup will receive about $50 million in tax credits if it hits several targets, including employing 1,000 people at the facility by 2024. Its investors include Saudi- and UAE-based conglomerate Abdul Latif Jameel and Japanese firm Sumitomo.

The startup's vehicles are geared squarely at adventurous, outdoorsy types--specifically, those with money. The company is making pickups, SUVs, and crossovers that cost between $60,000 and $90,000 depending on the package. Scaringe says the company doesn't have plans to move into sedans.

Rivian's "skateboard" chassis. CREDIT: Courtesy Rivian

Rivian will use the same chassis--essentially the body's frame--for all of its vehicles. It will look to earn extra revenue by lending the chassis to other vehicle makers. That's not uncommon in the automotive industry, but Scaringe says the company's advantage is in how easily its frame can be converted to fit vehicles in very different segments.

"Our products are very aspirational, very premium, but we can dial the performance of it down and use it in more commoditized applications," he says. He wouldn't reveal what brands the company is pursuing partnerships with, except that they would be companies "that are not directly competing with us--so they're complementary as opposed to sitting on top of us."

In any event, the company will have its work cut out for it. Tesla's very public deadline misses have demonstrated the difficulty of scaling up production of electric vehicles--or any vehicles for that matter. As Elon Musk has pointed out on numerous occasions, Tesla and Ford are the only American auto makers to have never gone bankrupt.

Still, Rivian's production goals won't be as steep as Tesla's have been with the Model 3, which it designed "for the masses." Scaringe says the company will look to make about 50,000 cars per year. Tesla made 83,000 vehicles in the third quarter of 2018.

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