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As Launch Looms, Step Inside Rivian's Engineering and Design Hub In Detroit

Two years ago when Bloomington-Normal first met Rivian, it looked like a one-man band. R.J. Scaringe was seemingly the face, the brains, and the extent of the operation.

Not anymore.

GLT was invited to visit Rivian’s engineering and design hub outside Detroit this week for a sneak peek at one of its first electric vehicles. Rivian leaders peeled back the curtain on a company that’s much bigger—and far more global—than previously known. It’s all leading to Rivian’s big debut Nov. 26 and 27 at the LA Auto Show.

Rivian, which plans to make its “adventure” EVs in Normal beginning next year, has around 560 employees. Around 300 are in Plymouth, Mich., where young, diverse engineers and designers work alongside seasoned auto industry professionals. English accents were as ubiquitous as the Patagonia sweaters, including chief engineer Mark Vinnels, a former top official at the British sportscar maker McLaren.

Scaringe, founder and CEO, said he’s spending much of his time now building out the Rivian team. Technology can evolve quickly and the marketplace can change.

“(Our team) … it’s the only real long-term advantage we have,” Scaringe said, noting a new 20-person advanced engineering team working in the United Kingdom.

Video: Rivian launched a teaser video Thursday for its pickup truck, called the R1T.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pycM8wRrYSM

GLT was one of several media outlets invited to Plymouth on Wednesday, on one condition: We can’t reveal any details about the vehicles themselves until they debut at the LA Auto Show. GLT will also be reporting live from LA, starting Nov. 26.  

And they’re serious about secrecy: They asked for a GLT reporter’s phone and taped over the camera to avoid any sneaky photos.

Jeff Hammoud
Credit Rivian
Rivian vice president for vehicle design Jeff Hammoud.

Rivian’s space in Plymouth looks like what a Hollywood set designer would create if you asked her to “make it look like a tech startup that makes cars.” Its open floor plan means you can see everyone. There’s a communal kitchen where you can grab a sparkling water. Conference room names (like “Aquarium” and “The Woods”) are even on brand. Sitting on an “inspiration” table in the design studio are tree-bark pencils, a carabiner, and heavy-duty water bottles—again evoking the concept of adventure.  

Rivian’s vice president for vehicle design, Jeff Hammoud, grew up in a small town in Canada and previously was design chief at Jeep. He’s wanted to design cars since he was 6.

“That’s one of the fun and exciting challenges we had here,” Hammoud said. “We don’t have history. We are a new brand. How do we create something that communicates our brand? It does want to feel strong, and confident. But it wants to feel intelligent. It’s not like a traditional truck where you differentiate it with a big, huge grill. We don’t need that.”

Defining the Brand

Scaringe spent much of Wednesday explaining the Rivian business strategy and brand to a pack of journalists from national publications and auto publications.

Rivian’s vehicles, he said, aim to be aspirational and inviting—that means premium (with costly tech) but also highly functional. Premium competitors like Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi are aspirational too, but their EVs don’t invite rough every day or road trip use like Rivian’s will, Scaringe said.

Rivian workplace
Credit Rivian
The inside of Rivian's engineering and design facility in Plymouth, Mich., which has around 300 employees.

“They’re more Armani than Patagonia,” Scaringe said.

Rivian spent three years on customer research, interviewing people across the country. Photos of them hang in the design studio. They also combed through vehicle purchase data—down to the ZIP code—to better understand ownership and how mobility may change in the coming decades. One key finding: It’s very common for Tesla owners to have an F-150 pickup sitting in the garage too.

“We’re creating a brand that not only builds brand and is super impactful, but also allows people who might not be able to join the Rivian network at the very beginning to come in a little bit later,” said Larry Parker, creative director at Rivian. 

The first Rivian vehicles—the pickup and a sport utility vehicle—will be delivered in fall 2020, Scaringe said. Those will be premium versions. Within 12 months of then, Rivian will begin selling more affordable versions, with smaller battery packs. MSRP for those will be in the high $60,000s. (The pickup and SUV share about 90 percent of the same components.)

Rivian plans to produce “tens of thousands” of vehicles annually, ramping up to 40,000 to 50,000 globally five years after launch, according to Scaringe and chief strategy officer Jiten Behl. Additional Rivian vehicles are set to launch in 2022. Rivian will have storefronts in major U.S. cities, including a factory store in Normal

Larry Parker
Credit Rivian
Larry Parker, creative director at Rivian.

After that, Rivian expects a greater societal shift toward autonomous driving. That would also lead to a shift in Rivian, away from just selling vehicles and toward selling adventure “experiences” or short-term rentals that rely heavily on vehicles driving themselves to a user. By 2030, Rivian expects most of its revenue to come through those experiences. 

“We need to be successful in this period to have a chance at being competitive in that next era,” Behl said.

Normal Manufacturing Update

Meanwhile, Rivian continues to retool the Normal manufacturing plant it bought for $16 million after Mitsubishi Motors closed in 2016. Around 60 to 65 employees are on staff at the 2.6 million-square-foot plant, including many former Mitsubishi workers, Scaringe said.   

“A lot of things are happening on the inside,” Scaringe said. “We’re redoing the body shop. We’re putting in place a battery assembly line. It’s a really elegant layout, using the extension of the plant that was added about 12 years ago. We’re making some updates to the paint shop as well. It’s exciting.” 

That $16 million price tag, by the way, is considered a steal. 

“We'll spend about one-tenth what you'd normally spend on a plant — about $150 million,” Scaringe recently told Automotive News

Scaringe noted they’re already making money at the plant by continuing to rent parking lot space for 17,000 Volkswagens left unusable after the diesel emissions scandal

“We’re almost break-even on the plant now,” Scaringe said. 

Hiring is expected to climb rapidly in Normal starting in the next few years. The local and state tax breaks won by Rivian to move to Illinois requires 500 full-time employees by 2021 and 1,000 employees by 2024 to get the incentives. If those 1,000 jobs do materialize, Rivian would be one of McLean County’s Top 10 largest employers.

Rivian’s “pilot builds” will happen at the end of 2019 or beginning of 2020, Scaringe said. 

Mark Vinnels
Credit Rivian
Mark Vinnels, Rivian’s executive director of engineering and programs.

“We’re not going to have significant hiring for another year as we set everything up, because right now it’s just people building the line and setting the line up,” Scaringe said. “Once we start pilot builds, at that point, it’s gradual growth in the team with startup production being less than two years from now.” 

As Rivian gets closer to production, that means its designers and engineers can only design and engineer what can actually be built. “Pretty much every component” in the launch vehicles is sourced, meaning a supplier is lined up, said Vinnels, Rivian’s executive director of engineering and programs. The priority now is integrating the supply base and manufacturing team with what’s happening in Plymouth. 

“It’s the biggest challenge that we have,” Vinnels said. “It’s absolutely critical that that process is considered, thought about, in every aspect of what we do.”

rivianlongg.mp3
Full segment from GLT.

GLT will bring you exclusive coverage of Rivian’s debut at the LA Auto Show, beginning Monday, Nov. 26. Follow WGLT.org/Rivian for the latest stories, and listen to GLT’s Sound Ideas at noon and 6 p.m. that week for reports from Los Angeles.

Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.