The Drive Interview: Rivian Automotive Founder and CEO RJ Scaringe

The elusive CEO confirms auxiliary battery packs, vehicle-to-vehicle charging, and his love for Porsches in our exclusive interview.

Rivian R1T and CEO RJ Scaringe
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The moment Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe walks into the room, it’s impossible not to see Clark Kent. The height, the slim, muscular build that mimics a superhero raised on a midwest farm, the coiffed hair sporting the same perfect side part. A set of thick-framed glasses complete the doppelgänger aesthetic. And then Scaringe starts talking and sharing his vision for his electric vehicle start-up, and the eerie similarities converge as you realize that this 36-year-old has the quiet but unflappable confidence of a man who knows he can change the world for the better. 

At the helm of a revolutionary company that's equal parts automotive and tech—one that just received more than $1 billion in investments from Amazon and Ford—aiming to morph how we think about sustainable transportation, Scaringe understands why he’s constantly compared to Elon Musk and Tesla. But whereas Musk is happy to tip into the braggadocious, billionaire playboy visage a la Tony Stark, Scaringe is content to let his work speak for him and meld into the background.

He doesn't use Steve Jobs-esque theatrics. He rarely gives interviews. His Twitter account is decidedly unexciting. What is exciting is the promise behind Rivian's first models, in the works for almost a decade and finally due at the the end of 2020: the R1T and R1S, an electric pickup truck and SUV pair that have wowed auto show crowds with their handsome designs, real off-road capabilities, a 3-second 0-60 mph time, and the convenience of a claimed 410 miles of range with the company's biggest battery pack. All that for around $70,000. You can see why people are paying attention.

Rivian

Rumor has it that during Rivian’s launch phase last winter, some marketing and public relations folks suggested he tackle Musk head-on and provoke the Tesla firebrand into a feud to spark headlines. That didn't happen. Instead, Scaringe wanted to focus the conversation on what Rivian’s bringing to the table. It's a choice that speaks volumes.

We sat down with Scaringe in May and listened as he outlined his battle plan for everything: Hitting Rivian's promised 400-plus miles of range, the misinformation surrounding charging speeds, the comparisons to Musk, and how combustion fans will eventually trickle over to electric.

The Drive: You’ve got an unique perspective on how transportation is at an inflection point. How do you think it’ll profoundly change in our lifetime?

RJ Scaringe: The world is going to be less different in two years, but more different in 20 years than we think. That perspective creates a challenging but interesting set of constraints, meaning you have to build products and technology that work in a world that looks just like today. People currently buy, own, and operate cars, but we have to make sure that that future technology forms the building blocks for a world in which people do not buy cars, but rather subscribe or use them as a service. And these mobility-service things have to exist across the same brand. In the infinite future, a Rivian truck or SUV will be the answer to question of ‘How am I going to go skiing with the family for the weekend?’ You may not own it, you may not drive it, but it's still the platform for adventure. We're working so hard to present ourselves as a platform for doing these adventurous things.

Rivian

And that platform forms the basis of your business-to-business model, too?

Yes, the beauty of developing this technology is that we can take the that platform, take the battery systems, take all the connectivity, and put them with different brands and different applications that allow us to address very different types of vehicles and very different types of miles. Over the next several months, you'll start to see more of that, where we're levering our technology.

You call your chassis ‘the skateboard,’ so you’ll be using the skateboard to underpin a variety of vehicles for other companies?

The skateboard can be in different things, and when you start to think about the base of mobility, the players that are uniquely positioned to win, to dominate, to pick up trillions of miles every year, are nontraditional. Take Uber. It’s the 2019 embodiment of ‘just in time’ mobility. But it’s just the beginning, so whether Uber is the longterm aggregator of demand and supply, who knows. But, there are going to be Uber-like applications that can take me from New York City to Long Island. That solution is going to look very different than the vehicle that I'm going to take to Boston or very different than the vehicle I'm going to take skiing. You’ll need things that are purely providing a cost-per-mile service and other things that invite you to aspire to use them; that invite you to adventure.

Rivian

The skateboard.

And Rivian can provide the skateboard for the cost-per-mile use vehicles and a proprietary vehicle for the adventure-minded. When you talk about electric adventure, you want to get off the grid, very literally sometimes. How do you allay range anxiety fears of those people when you're encouraging them to go farther from cities and charging stations?

We have to have a big battery pack. We have three battery sizes in the vehicle. Our biggest is up to 180 kilowatts hours and that gives us 400 plus miles of range. If you're going on a big adventure, you need a big pack. Then you need to start to think about infrastructure. The days of not having charging infrastructure everywhere are going vanish. We grew up in a world where cell coverage wasn't everywhere, but somebody born in 2002 just doesn't know that world. The kids born today won't know a world in 15 years where there isn't charging infrastructure everywhere. Part of the infrastructure we're going to build is in those remote locations so it's easy to pick up electrons when you're farther from urban areas.

Let’s say you get charging infrastructure in places like Joshua Tree or other remote national parks. How do you get further off the edge of the grid?

You're starting to get into the long tail of use cases, but even there we've designed the vehicle so you can have auxiliary battery packs. You can also charge Rivian-to-Rivian, which is a neat thing. You connect the two vehicles and then I could hand you some electrons. That takes us to the limit, and of course you can always find a corner of the world where it won't work, just like you can't find a gas station in Antarctica. You won't be able to find a plug in Antarctica, so there are natural limitations.

Instead of how far, do you want to change the conversation to how fast that people can charge to 80 percent? A lot of the issues stem from ‘Well, I get electric vehicles, but I can fill up a tank of gas in 2 minutes. This is going to take me 30 minutes to get to an 80 percent charge.’

There's a lot of misinformation on this, unfortunately. The speed at which you charge has a huge impact on the life of the batteries. Regardless of what they're telling you, everyone is working with very similar sets in chemistry. There are three or four big battery cell providers here in North America, and their technologies have very minor differences. Ultimately you're up against how fast you can shove electrons in, providing you're effective at cooling the cell and providing it with power to shove it in. The limit is chemistry more than charging strategy, charging profiles, and even cooling. We're all boiling the same water so to speak, and we've optimized the hell out of it for cooling, so we can push electrons in really quickly. We've optimized the profiles, and we've optimized how we operate and run the batteries to maintain life.

At launch, we'll be able to put 200 miles of range into the vehicle in 30 minutes. Could we go faster? Yes. Do we start to really degrade the cell? Yes. In the next five years, you’ll see a lot of demonstrations where things are charged in 15 minutes, but if you do that 30 times, the battery is shot. Those demos are not realistic or repeatable and we'll start to see those get replaced with real world charging speeds and rates. We see that already, like if you tried to supercharge a Tesla twenty days in a row, the 20th day is slower than the first day because Tesla's naturally protecting the pack.

When do you think the chemistry will change to enable faster charging?

This is the holy grail. 

Rivian

Is Rivian working on that internally?

We're not developing chemistry, we're working with our cell partner and testing ourselves, but we're using existing chemistry. It’s a little in the weeds for us, but I’m just being honest with you. All of people are claiming to do things that they're truly not. Essentially manufacturers buying cells from the same suppliers. Very few people that are actually doing fundamental work and chemistry on an OEM level, and it makes sense because you aggregate the research to a small set of players that then spend their dollars amongst the manufacturers. That's why everybody is running up against the same ceiling and charging times.

Given that everyone has the same building blocks, Rivian included, we know that Audi’s E-Tron missed its EPA mileage rating by a chunk. Jaguar’s I-Pace did, too. How are you going to ensure that you're going to hit your promise of 400-plus miles?

Well, charging is one thing. What is interesting is in how you use the electrons you put on the car. It's a combination of all of your system efficiencies. So taking your electro components, your electrical architecture, your drive units, and getting the efficiencies on those up very high. Then the vehicle efficiencies, such as rolling resistance, aerodynamic drag, weight. We have some inherent challenges with the pickup and SUV, and it’s a true SUV, meaning it's relatively boxy, but the aerodynamics of the vehicle are highly optimized. People look at the Rivian and say it doesn't look very aerodynamic, but this is the most aerodynamic truck in the world. By far.

Credit goes to the air curtains at the front of the bumper, the trailing edge of the bed, the trailing edge of the cab, the sheer surface of the side, the flat bottom, the suspension when it's in aero-mode—it’s tangential to the bottom of the floor so you get perfectly flat flooring so the suspension links don’t free stream air. Then we have a lot of work going into the tires for rolling resistance. The last one is weight, and luckily with weight, you can get some recovery with regenerative braking, but these are heavy vehicles. That's why we're able to get the 400 plus miles in range with the 180 kilowatt hour pack.

And you think that'll stand when you go to the EPA?

I can't comment on how the other companies are doing their simulations and internal testing. With the EPA, there's no magic. We know what the drive cycle is, so we’re testing to that drive cycle with honesty to the conditions, meaning it's representative. It doesn't do us any good, particularly as a new manufacturer, to promise something and not deliver on it. We're very thoughtful about that.

Rivian

You're stuck with a lot of comparisons to Elon Musk. Do you think those are apt?

In so far as we both build electric cars, we're similar. Other than that, we're building very different types of products for different companies. I say that with the deepest admiration and respect for what they've done. Tesla has really helped make electric cars exciting. They've helped shift the world towards electrification. We as Rivian, and we as the planet, owe them a thank you. But I think there's a need for more flavors. The world needs more than one new electric and new innovator within the space and we’ve been thoughtful also to not try to compete directly in the space they're in. If we’re going after that type of a use case, I think it doesn't make any sense. There are companies that are doing that. There's a number of Chinese backed companies that are doing products that are very similar to the brand experience and sort of product experience that you get with Tesla.

Which company would you rather Rivian be benchmarked against?

That's a good question. Internally, we talk about never using electrification as the crutch, as the differentiation. It's too easy. If my pitch to you was it's a truck and it's electric, the bottom falls out of that pitch in five years, hopefully. Once the world is electric, the commonality between us and others is how the vehicle drives, the performance, the packaging. We think of creating a new space that's not there today. You have the premium refined capability you’d have in a Land Rover, with a lot of off-road capability, the dynamics that exceed a Porsche Cayenne Turbo, with the ride refinement that you'd see in something like an Audi Q7. We sort of take different features and we combine them through the application technology. And, by the way, it's electric, but that's the enabling tool.

Rivian

I understand you grew up helping your neighbor restoring 356s.

Yeah! Are you a Porsche person?

I am, but more so, I'm a combustion guy. I love the sound of a combustion engine. I love a manual. How do you sell someone like me on your car?

I grew up restoring classic Porsches and I had all kinds of crazy projects. I built engines, I'm an absolute car person. It's like the heart of my life. I love cars. But, I don't view electric and combustion as being at odds with one another. It's just a very different and new flavor. I've been driving electrics for a while and it's a completely different experience and, I think, in a positive way. You lose the manual, you lose some of the noise, but you gain incredible smoothness, incredible torque response, and precision with throttling that torquing in and out. I find it more enjoyable, but I think it is a process. People that grew up with something, it’s always a transition, just like anything else. There are all the cliché analogies, that the combustion engine with being a manual transmission is like a horse in the 1930s. There are people who grew up around it like it and appreciate that, but it is absolutely not going to be a long term part of the transportation system. It just simply can't, for a variety of reasons.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity