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If Rivian Becomes the Tesla of Pickup Trucks, then Adios to ICE Engines

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Energy & Environment
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Tesla usually dominates the conversation whenever the topic turns to electric vehicles, but that’s about to change. Last year Rivian, a startup also based in the U.S., introduced its first electric vehicle (EV) pickup truck and an SUV model, too. The company has already attracted a new round of $700 million in funding from a group of investors spearheaded by Amazon.

Hold on to your hats! After years of slow growth in the EV sector, Amazon’s move demonstrates how quickly the automotive marketplace could pivot to zero emission mobility — with or without support from federal policy makers.

The Rivian EV pickup truck: yes, a pickup, without the emissions

The new $700 million electric vehicle investment is especially significant because Rivian is going toe-to-toe with Tesla to capture the luxury branding market for electric vehicles, and it is stepping into a sector that Tesla has yet to develop.

The idea of pickups as a luxury brand may seem counterintuitive, but high end pickup trucks similar to a past Cadillac’s Escalade SUV-style pickup have already piqued more consumers’ interest.

In addition, many auto makers have already gained traction with consumers by loading pickup cabins with comfortable amenities.

With that head start, Rivian concentrates on identifying its brand with top level performance, through a singular focus on EV technology from top to bottom. The company describes a “clean sheet” approach that fosters “adventurers at the core of every design and engineering decision.”

Rivian is also laser-focused on comparing its R1T pickup with the best that internal combustion engines have to offer in terms of performance. Here’s an example from the company’s website:

“The Rivian electric drive delivers remarkable power and torque through four independent motors — with 200 horsepower available at each wheel. This precise torque control enables active torque vectoring and maximized performance in every situation, from high-speed cornering to low-speed rock crawling — rain or shine.”

In addition, the company declares an impressive battery range of more than 400 miles for its EV pickup truck.

Ruh-roh Tesla, here comes Amazon

Speaking of head starts, Tesla is miles ahead in the publicity department, but the new Amazon-led investment could go a long way toward making this race an even match.

For one thing, Tesla has yet to introduce a pickup model. That provides Rivian with an opportunity to stake out a unique identity for itself — an opportunity it has seized, by emphasizing the pickup as an outdoorsy and off-road experience. That’s in contrast with Tesla’s image, which focuses on sleek urban mobility.

Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe also emphasizes the power of aligning the company with Amazon’s technology platform, as he explained in a press statement:

“. . .Beyond simply eliminating compromises that exist around performance, capability and efficiency, we are working to drive innovation across the entire customer experience. . .”

On Amazon’s part, the company may anticipate that a fleet of owner-drive pickup trucks would expand its delivery capacity and provide for more leverage when negotiating with conventional delivery partners like UPS.

GM spots an opportunity

With the $700 million in hand, Rivian has now attracted investments worth $1.15 billion.

General Motors is reportedly in talks with Rivian. If that relationship moves forward, it could evolve into a collaborative partnership, possibly focusing around self-driving technology.

GM envisions rapid consumer adoption of self-driving technology and Rivian is also highly vested in self-driving EV mobility.

Amazon and the gig economy

One note of caution applies to the potential for Amazon to grow its delivery network with owner-driven vehicles through the Rivian investment.

The rise of the gig economy is one factor in the stagnation of worker wages over the past generation. The new Amazon venture could exacerbate the trend by pushing the ride-hailing model into the delivery sector.

On the other hand, Amazon has been getting its social responsibility house in order. The company has made notable progress in supply chain areas including packaging and renewable energy.

Amazon’s reputation on employee relations is more mixed. The company’s recent statements on human rights pave the way for a more balanced approach, but there is still a long way to go.

The concern would be that Amazon’s shortcomings in the area of worker treatment could ripple into Rivian’s manufacturing operations.

In terms of brand reputation that’s no small concern, considering that Rivian has set up operations in a 2.6 million square foot manufacturing plant located in Norman, Illinois. The Rivian operation will take over a space vacated by Mitsubishi just three years ago.

In terms of employee relations, Rivian would do well to learn from Tesla’s experience. While Tesla garners rave reviews for its EV technology, the company has long been dogged by various media stories on anti-union practices and other worker complaints at its California manufacturing facility.

Image credit: Rivian/Facebook

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

Read more stories by Tina Casey