RJ Scaringe Photo credit: JENNIFER VUONG
UPDATED: 10/22/18 3:10 pm ET – corrected
Editor’s note: Rivian employs 450 people. An earlier version of this story misstated the number of employees.
DETROIT — The latest electric vehicle startup doesn’t come from a tech titan, and it isn’t funded by the checkbook of a Chinese billionaire.
Rivian Automotive is spearheaded by MIT graduate RJ Scaringe, 35, who founded the company after finishing his graduate studies and has so far raised $450 million in funding. The venture is nearly a decade old, putting it in the elder-statesmen range of startups, but it has evolved its product strategy and timetable over the past seven years.
Along the way, it moved its headquarters from Florida to suburban Detroit, acquired an existing assembly plant in Normal, Ill., resolved to focus on electric vehicles, and now employs about 450 people in Michigan, California and Illinois.
More significantly, CEO Scaringe says Rivian is on the verge of revealing its first products to the public.
Rivian will debut two vehicles, an SUV and a pickup, at next month’s AutoMobility LA. The company is eager to introduce itself to potential customers and begin taking deposits on its launch vehicles, which are expected to be produced and begin shipping mid-2020.
“We’re launching a vehicle that has to deliver a lot of technology — electrification, connectivity, self-driving,” Scaringe said last week during a presentation at Automotive News’ office. He said it has to be “a brand that can transcend the shifts away from ownership and steering wheels.”
Scaringe said Rivian will be playing in the same sandbox as most future-thinking carmakers, with an emphasis on subscription retail services, electrification and selected use of self-driving technology.
Among his details about Rivian’s plan:
On appealing to upscale customers engaged in outdoor activities:
Rivian’s strategy will be to focus on high-end utility vehicles and trucks made for the outdoors, more functional than current offerings from the likes of European carmakers, Cadillac and its startup EV competitors.
“Those brands don’t necessarily go with, ‘Would you put your kids in it and go to the beach?’ ” Scaringe said. “We decided to focus on the aspirational side. Land Rover will be the closest competitor because they’re both premium and adventure.”
On creating a retail model that is startup-friendly:
Rivian wants to “directly control the customer experience,” he said. The company will focus on both selling vehicles and subscription services, where customers pay a monthly, fixed cost for access to a vehicle or lineup of vehicles. Circumventing franchised dealerships will be a key part of implementing these new services.
“We recognize how dynamic the customer model is,” Scaringe said. “Any of the subscription services today are tripping over themselves on how to [run these services] through a dealer.”
On Rivian developing its own self-driving technology:
Rivian is developing low-level self-driving technology that can function in clearly defined situations and geofenced areas, but Scaringe said the company isn’t funded or staffed to pursue full self-driving systems that go anywhere at anytime, also referred to as Level 5 autonomy in reference to SAE standards.
“The world has become massively confused with what is self-driving,” he said. “Level 5 is really hard. This is not something you can do with $100 million. To say you can do this with five cameras and a radar is completely unreasonable. This is Manhattan Project-style hard.
“We don’t have the cash. This is a very, very expensive process, you have a lot of companies that will not win the race spending lots of money.”