By Jim Dey
In Normal, a city in McLean County, one of the proving grounds for the next great technological breakthrough that will change the world?
Forbes magazine suggested it is in a March cover story on 11-year-old Rivian Automotive — “Elon’s New Nemesis: With Bleeding-Edge Tech and a $3 Billion War Chest From Amazon, Ford and the Saudis, Secretive Automaker Rivian Is Already Tesla’s Worst Nightmare.”
Currently overseeing a $750 million renovation of the abandoned 2.5 million-square-foot Chrysler-Mitsubishi plant, Rivian founder Robert J. Scaringe predicts his company will be able to “produce 250,000 vehicles per year by mid-decade.” They are described as “battery-powered trucks, vans and SUVs.”
The 37-year-old Scaringe, who has a doctorate in mechanical engineering from MIT, started his company from scratch, eventually focusing on electric vehicles as a means of ameliorating “geopolitical, climate, air quality” problems. His vision has attracted the kind of high-powered financial support that makes it clear he is not alone in this pursuit — Ford ($500 million), Amazon ($700 million) and Cox Automotive ($350 million).
The growth has been striking. Rivian took over the Normal plant in 2017, starting with less than 200 employees. Now, Forbes reports, the company employs more than 2,000.
They’ll need those employees if they’re to meet orders that already have been placed.
In September, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced plans to purchase 100,000 battery-powered delivery vans, 10,000 of which are expected to be in operation by 2022 with the balance in place by 2024.
Meanwhile, Ford is partnering with Rivian to build an electric vehicle. Ford is producing the body and interior and Rivian the platform. The final product “will be a luxury SUV with Ford’s Lincoln brand,” Forbes reports.
The race to produce electric vehicles by startups (Rivian and Tesla founded by Elon Musk) and established car companies (GM and the Japanese companies) is a modern-day gold rush. If past is prologue, there will be winners and losers in this quest for market supremacy.
Major challenges abound — vehicle range, charging stations and price.
But, as Forbes reported, consumers are showing great interest in moving on from gasoline- or diesel-powered engines.
It reports that electric vehicles and plug-in electric hybrids “accounted for a mere 2.2 percent” of vehicles sold in the final quarter of 2016 and just one-third of those were “purely electric.”
The number of electric vehicles sold worldwide is expected to skyrocket from 5.1 million in 2018 to 21 million in 2020, 98 million in 2025 and 253 million in 2030.
The 2020s “are gearing up to be the decade of the EV (electric vehicle),” Forbes predicts.
Having so far produced only prototypes, Rivian plans to build just two models of vehicles at the beginning — a truck and luxury SUV. Rivian’s pickup truck is expected to have a base price of about $69,000 and the SUV about $72,500.
Three more models — smaller in size and lower in price — are on the drawing board.
The Normal community sustained a major economic setback when Mitsubishi closed its plant there in 2015 and was skeptical when Rivian purchased it for $16 million in 2017.
But Rivian — along with its deep-pocketed backers — has created a new normal as it moves steadily forward to seize not only the day, but the future.