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This Upstart Automaker Aims to Make Electric Pickups That’ll Change Trucks Forever

With more than $1 billion invested from Amazon and Ford, Rivian’s set to take the electric vehicle scene by storm.

Photo: Courtesy of Rivian

Rivian’s on a roll. After the electric automotive company introduced two sleek and innovative models—the R1T pickup truck and the R1S SUV—to a stunned Los Angeles Auto Show last fall, the Michigan-based outfit scored a $700 million investment from Amazon this February. Then, last week, it sealed a deal with Ford Motor Company for another $500 million investment. Founded a decade ago by RJ Scaringe, an MIT grad with a doctorate in mechanical engineering and a unique vision for the future of transportation, Rivian is fully charged and ready to rumble over any obstacles as it ratchets up production ahead of projected deliveries in 2020.

From the outside, Rivian’s Plymouth, MI, headquarters is nondescript, a ginormous brick remnant from an erstwhile manufacturing operation decades ago. Inside, a bustling transplanted Silicon Valley startup hums. Repurposed industrial shipping containers serve as meeting rooms and coat closets. Modern furniture surrounds a huge open kitchen, where La Croix, Kind Bars and intimate meetings abound. Scores of desk pods teeming with engineers, designers and other production wizards fill the space. Empty workspaces already have double computer monitors erected, signifying any vacancy is temporary. Rivian’s to-do list is lengthy, and it’s adding staffers at an exponential rate that mirrors the company’s explosive growth. 

Jeff Hammoud VP of Vehicle Design VR review.  Photo: Courtesy of Rivian

Past the kitchen, through a keycard access-only door, is the design division. The center of the vast space is anchored by full-size models of the R1T and the R1S, hewn in clay and other materials. The outer perimeter is comprised of mood boards, representing early incarnations of the interior and exteriors of both vehicles, as well as the inspirations behind the various included components, surfaces and materials. Sunlight streaming in from a wall of skylights brightens the clean space, and gives it some extra energy, though everything and everyone in the studio is in constant motion, including Jeff Hammoud, Rivian’s VP of Design.

Hammoud is in charge of everything you see on a Rivian, inside and out, and after more than a decade at FCA where he helmed design for Jeep, the man’s prowess for crafting adventure vehicles is undeniable. That’s vital, since Rivian wants to build a luxurious battery-electric vehicle that invites you to actually use it to explore the world. “You shouldn’t be afraid to get in a Rivian with muddy shoes,” Hammoud said. “That’s the type of truck and SUV we’re building.” Hammoud began by surveying the existing marketplace competition in the truck space and noted the homogenous nature of the interiors: all things big, clunky and plastic. Then he encouraged his team to stray far from the norms.

Jeff Hammoud, VP of vehicle design.  Photo: Courtesy of Rivian

While the resulting interior may appear simple, in comparison, it’s anything but. “Take the way we used the wood,” Hammoud noted. “Traditionally, in automotive interiors, wood is used as a decorative trim piece. It’s just there. We treated it similar to furniture. It’s what holds the screen. It creates the vent and it holds a cluster as well.” Because base prices for a Rivian are expected to be about $70,000, upscale materials were employed up top—wood, leather, metal—but down below, Hammoud wanted to push the boundaries of premium and durability.

Before any interior material was finalized, Hammoud grabbed a swatch and rubbed it on his shoe. If his footwear left a mark, the material was ineligible. “Quality materials mean they should not always be easy to clean, but they should look cleaner longer,” he surmised. Thus, the carpet is SuperFabric, an abrasive-resistant material, and the floor mats are made from a durable woven material that’s used heavily in placemats and outdoor furniture. “We wanted it infinitely customizable down to the strands, so we can create unique patterns,” said Hammoud. “It gives the interior a more homey feel because it’s less traditional than some black rubber mats. But you can take it out and hose it off, just as easily as those rubber mats.”

Rivian materials.  Photo: Courtesy of Rivian

Bringing the outdoors closer—and occasionally into the vehicle—is something that Rivian takes seriously. While Rolls-Royce places an umbrella into the rear doors of the Phantom, to shield the occupants from the elements, Rivian integrated a flashlight into its doors, to encourage exploration. Sometimes the connections to adventure are in spirit, as with the shape of the headlights. “The inspiration was a carabiner,” Hammoud said. A designer had an idea to attach a carabiner to the front for tying down canoes and other things from the roof, which didn’t make final production, but the shape was retained.

With new vehicles, one of the challenges creating a face that’s recognizable and memorable, something that you can see once and describe to your friends perfectly. Most trucks rely on ever-increasing grilles that soon stand a chance of consuming the rest of the truck. “We’re electric so we don’t need a big grille, but we want to communicate boldness and capability,” he said. “That’s why the front end is very vertical and upright.” 

Rivian Design Studio’s Andrew Frierott, lead sculptor  Photo: Courtesy of Rivian

While battery-electric vehicles (BEV) represent the future of transportation, veer too far from the putative notion of what a trucks and SUVs should look like and you risk scaring off potential customers. Hammoud thinks that radical designs are possible downfield, but keeping things familiar-feeling at launch is vital to Rivian’s success. The SUV’s windshield was initially further forward, but that imparted more of a van or crossover vibe, so it was moved back. “That also enabled us to have a really big front trunk volume, a huge selling point of the vehicle,” he said.

Storage for your adventures is important, but so is class-leading performance. Rivian separates the body from the chassis, something internally dubbed “the skateboard,” which houses the battery packs and motors. A 147 kW motor sits at each wheel, capable of sending about 197 horsepower to it, independently from the other three wheels. Three battery pack variations will be on offer for the all-wheel-drive system: a 180 kWh pack that promises 400 miles of range (more than Tesla, if you’re wondering), a 135 kWh pack good for at least 300 miles and a 105 kWh with 230 miles on offer.

A clay Rivian pickup model.  Photo: Courtesy of Rivian

While the top speeds are limited to 125 miles an hour, that mid-range battery pack will get you anywhere the quickest, sending 562 kW to the gearbox (about 750 horsepower and 826 lb-ft of torque), and propelling you to 60 in three seconds. The largest battery pushes 522 kW (700 horsepower) to the gearbox and only adds 0.2 seconds to the tear to 60. The smallest—and cheapest—iteration will generate 300 kW (400 horsepower and 413 lb-ft) and requires 4.9 seconds to hit 60.

Why quad-motors? Performance, sure, but they also offer more capability. “True, groundbreaking off-road capability is derived from the ability to instantaneously control and eke out every morsel of grip that’s available to you,” said Mark Vinnels, executive director of engineering for Rivian. “That’s much more accurately and easily done when you control it with motor torque, rather than a combination of motor torque and brake interaction,” currently commonplace.

Rivian  Photo: Courtesy of Rivian

Vinnels, who spent fourteen years overseeing the development of all McLaren road cars since the F1, and ran Lotus’s vehicle program division for six years prior to that, knows how to push a vehicle’s limits to the maximum. “Arguably, every off-road vehicle should be designed in this way, because controlling the torque in each wheel optimizes what’s going on every single contact patch,” he said. “Internal combustion engines can’t get the throttle response precise enough.” The motors on each wheel will also aid in changing direction on the fly and, in concert with a revolutionary suspension system, the effect will be unprecedented, Vinnels claimed. “The ability to climb and descend in this, even on a loose surface, will be better than anything.”

With trucks and SUVs, typically you’re dealt a high center of gravity, relatively loose suspension and heaps of body roll. Vinnels was determined to subvert those (sub)standards. The battery pack sits low in the chassis, shoving the center of mass downward for increased stability. Hydraulic roll controls were introduced to help mitigate rocking while riding. Various drive modes will help shift the vehicle’s characteristics around, too. Vinnels hinted at three or four, but noted nothing’s final. “You could have ‘comfort’ for road driving, and ‘sport’ mode where things intensify, and maybe even ‘track’ mode for pure performance. A division the other way would take you into off-road,” he said, adding the vehicle could also be capable of selecting the best drive mode based automatically from its sensors.

Rivian

A Rivian pickup.  Photo: Courtesy of Rivian

The ambitious goal for Vinnels is an unparalleled breadth of performance, something that can exercise polite road manners in comfort mode, gut-punching grip and acceleration in track mode, and composed confidence the minute you leave asphalt. “That span of responsibility is something that hasn’t yet been seen before,” he said.

Ask Vinnels if any Easter eggs are being considered during the build process, and you’re rewarded with a sly smile. “Maybe,” he began. “Maybe we have some stuff we could release to people. If you think about the ability to control the torque of each wheel, you realize we could reverse the torque. Then we could start to talk about spinning the vehicle on its own axis.” If none of those innovations and specifications appeal to a potential Rivian customer, assuredly “Tank Mode” would.

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