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What Tesla's Cybertruck Means For Rivian

Elon with the truck
Ringo H.W. Chiu
Tesla CEO Elon Musk introduces the Cybertruck at Tesla's design studio Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, in Hawthorne, Calif. Musk is taking on the workhorse heavy pickup truck market with his latest electric vehicle.

The electric vehicle world has changed a lot in the year since Rivian revealed its pickup and SUV at the LA Auto Show, with the Detroit automakers and others announcing their own new models.

The competitive landscape changed again Thursday night, when Tesla finally unveiled its electric pickup. The Cybertruck has a low starting price ($39,900), and the costlier high-end versions tout over 500 miles of range and zero to 60 mph starts in less than 6.5 seconds.

The Cybertruck’s design, however, has drawn mixed reviews. It’s triangular, brutalist, like something out of “Blade Runner.” Not easy to imagine in the parking lot at Sam’s Club.

“I was thinking, is this for real, or this a joke? Is this Elon Musk playing one big joke, and at any moment he’s going to say, ‘Haha, got you. Here’s the real truck,’” said Sean Mitchell, a Tesla owner turned EV watcher and journalist based in Denver. 

Mitchell attended Tesla’s big reveal Thursday in LA. He was also there a year ago for Rivian’s debut. 

“This is a lot less disruptive to Rivian than I was anticipating, because of how Tesla’s truck looks. I’m a lot less worried about Rivian,” Mitchell said. “Rivian is going to be able to exist just fine without Tesla eating into its existing (customer) deposit pool.” 

Rivian’s R1T would be the first all-electric pickup on U.S. roads when it hits the market in late 2020. Hiring is ramping up at Rivian’s Normal manufacturing plant, which is expected to have as many as 1,000 workers by 2024. (There are now around 190.) 

But it won’t be the only electric pickup for long. GM plans to have one for sale by fall 2021. Ford’s electric F-150 could also debut in 2021, when Tesla’s Cybertruck is expected to go into production. Smaller players Bollinger and Atlis are also producing trucks. 

Ford Mustang Mach-E electric SUV
Credit Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP
The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E electric SUV is shown at the AutoMobility LA auto show Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, in Los Angeles.

Electric vehicles are still a small share of overall U.S. sales, about 1-2%. That’s expected to grow to nearly 9% by 2026, said Stephanie Brinley, principal analyst at IHS Markit. Her firm is projecting around 1.4 million all-electric vehicles by then, spread across 100 to 120 models. 

“Demand for electric pickup trucks is uncertain at best. Over time, one expects that to grow,” Brinley said. “But in these initial phases, the electric market is still pretty tiny. And it’s gonna take time for it to grow. So in those early parts, you’ll have these four—GM, Ford, Rivian, and Tesla—fighting for a really small part of the market. And they’ll need patience and capital to keep going.” 

This amount of competition will be somewhat new for Tesla. Most of its models have been the only electric game in town, said Brinley. And pickups are the most profitable corner of the U.S. auto market, making the segment very important for legacy automakers. 

“The brand leaders are going to be there with them,” Brinley said. “They won’t be able to say, ‘We’re the only electrics here.’”

If Rivian and Tesla are rivals, it’s a friendly competition. Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe’s go-to line about Tesla’s Musk is that he “made electric cars cool.” 

“They took the untruth that electric cars are boring and slow and flipped that,” Scaringe told WGLT at the LA Auto Show. “But they’re focused on a different space than we are. And it’s a great company. We feel the world needs multiple, many different avenues to build vehicles. It’s not just one flavor, and that’s of course what we’re working toward.” 

Tesla has struggled to meet delivery targets for its sedans, and some fear the new vehicle will shift the company's attention away from the goal of more consistently meeting its targets. Rivian’s strategy has largely been to stay quiet until something is ready. 

“(Rivian) is less fanboy and more legit than some of the Tesla products,” said auto industry analyst and consultant Rebecca Lindland. “We’re still waiting for (Tesla’s) Model Y. We’re still waiting for the Roadster. We’re still waiting for quite a few products from Tesla, and they haven’t come out.” 

The Cybertruck’s specs—including 500+ miles of range for the high-end $69,900 version—have lived up to Tesla’s reputation for breaking barriers, Lindland said. But that polarizing design was disappointing, she said, because Tesla is known for beautiful products. 

“This truck is not a good-looking vehicle. It’s just not,” Lindland said. “Certainly from a design standpoint, Rivian has an advantage.” 

The Cybertruck is only the latest EV to suck the air out of the room. Last week Ford unveiled its all-electric Mustang Mach-E SUV, which will arrive in late 2020. Earlier this year Ford announced it was investing $500 million in Rivian and would use Rivian’s skateboard platform to build a new battery-powered vehicle that’s still a mystery. 

Ford’s Mach-E is one of the biggest signs yet that the landscape is transitioning, said Mitchell, the Tesla owner from Denver. 

“It’s been remarkable to see how much the landscape has changed, how much traditional (automakers) have jumped on board with electrification, either by stating they’re going to come out with something, or actually showing off vehicles,” he said. 

“There just seems to be so many more options than there was 12 months ago.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.