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For Rivian's Pre-Order Customers, Environment Is Key – And So Are Questions About Charging

Rivian truck
The Rivian R1T pickup is surrounded by onlookers at CES in Las Vegas in January.

A landscape architect from Queens. A marketing professional in Colorado Springs. A systems engineer from Columbus, Ohio. A cancer scientist near San Diego. An electrical engineer from British Columbia.

These are among the first Rivian customers who’ve plopped down a $1,000 deposit to pre-order an electric truck or sport utility vehicle. Rivian will make those vehicles at its manufacturing plant in Normal, where it’s already hired 250 people and has pledged to employ at least 1,000.

Rivian had nearly 10,000 pre-orders as of December, according to a report from the Frost & Sullivan research firm. A Rivian spokesperson declined to confirm or deny that number.

WGLT interviews with five Rivian pre-order customers from across the country reveal a somewhat unexpected combination of wants, needs, and personality traits that will now play an outsized role in Bloomington-Normal’s economic future. They also show lingering concerns about the country’s EV charging infrastructure and how Rivian plans to handle service and repairs.

One thing the five customers share is a growing concern about their own environmental footprint. They think going electric will help.

Jeff Martin, 35, is the landscape architect in New York. He pre-ordered the Rivian R1S SUV. He needed something with a lot of storage—they have a 1-year-old—and enough range for family road trips to Pittsburgh and Virginia Beach, both over 300 miles away.  

But sustainability was also a key factor.

“Like a lot of people, I’m just realizing my impact on the climate and everything else,” Martin said. “When it’s made easy, like this seems to be, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”

The Truck-Loving Californian

About 2,800 miles away, cancer scientist Kelly Jenkins in Poway, Calif., likes to be first in line when new technology comes out. He wanted the first electric truck.

Kelly Jenkins of California with his Chevy Volt and Chevy Avalanche
Credit Kelly Jenkins
Kelly Jenkins of California with his Chevy Volt and Chevy Avalanche. He's pre-ordered a Rivian R1T pickup truck.

Jenkins has driven trucks his whole life; his dad was a GM guy, so up to now it’s been Chevys. He uses a Chevy Volt for day-to-day commuting. On the weekends Jenkins has a Chevy Avalanche pickup for home repairs, camping trips, and runs to their cabin in the mountains.

“We’re pretty liberal, pretty green. Living in California, I don’t like the idea of burning a lot of fossil fuels when there’s no point,” Jenkins said.

Since its debut at the 2018 LA Auto Show, Rivian has done show-and-tells in select cities, including Atlanta, Denver, New York, and Las Vegas. It also hosted a community event in Uptown Normal in October. Yet only one of the five pre-order customers has seen a Rivian in person.

“It’s just been YouTube videos and pictures. We haven’t seen one yet. We’re flying on blind faith here,” laughed Ryan Troy of Columbus, Ohio, the systems engineering manager at Dell.

Rivian says it will begin production of its R1T pickup in late 2020, followed soon after by the SUV. The majority of pre-order customers will receive their vehicles in 2021, a spokesperson said.

Troy and his wife ordered the SUV, drawn to its design and functionality. They needed something with range that could carry ski equipment for regular road trips to Colorado.

“From what we’ve seen so far, it would fit our lifestyle quite well,” Troy said.

Troy and the other customers say they have still have not been asked to choose their vehicle specifications, like color selection and trim.

“That’s definitely something we’re interested in to see,” Troy said.

Charging and Service Concerns

Like Ryan Troy, Jeff Martin in New York said his top concern is how mature the U.S. charging infrastructure will be by the time he gets his Rivian. While they’re popping up in more and more places, chargers are hardly as ubiquitous as gas stations.

Martin is a renter—not a homeowner—so installing a charging station at home isn’t possible. He’ll have to rely on publicly available charging infrastructure. Martin works in Queens, so he thinks he may need to duck out over his lunch break to find a charger. For long road trips, he’ll have to plan ahead to have a full charge.

“I know it’ll be a change in lifestyle. We’re so used to as a society owning a personal vehicle, stopping at a gas station whenever you want to. So it’ll just be a different thought process.”

Rivian says it plans to build some of its own charging infrastructure, including at many of the outdoor destinations for which its vehicles are designed. Rivian uses the CCS (Combined Charging System) standard charging network, which is different from Tesla’s proprietary charging technology. There are several companies building out their own CCS networks that Rivian owners will be able to use. Electrify America is one of those furthest along. It plans to install or have under development 800 total charging stations with about 3,500 total chargers by December 2021. There have also been proposals in Congress to fund a national network.

Martin said he expects to see chargers pop up at gas stations one day.

Exterior of Rivian plant
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
The Rivian manufacturing plant in Normal now employs 250. The company has pledged to hire at least 1,000 workers here.

“I’m confident that the network will catch up once consumers start buying vehicles,” Martin said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “I’m excited to be on the front end of that.”

Kelly Jenkins, the scientist from California, said he’s not worried about day-to-day charging. His employer offers free charging on site. His biggest question is how Rivian’s service program will work.

Rivian has not disclosed a full service and repair plan for customers. Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe recently said they’re “spending a huge amount of time solving service.” He said Rivian may turn to other brands’ dealerships or at independent shops to become Rivian service centers.

Tesla, the EV leader in the U.S., has struggled with service too. It opened its first Illinois sales and service location outside the Chicago area in Bloomington in 2019.

“I imagine they’re going to follow some sort of Tesla model and have service stations. I live in San Diego, so I imagine it’s not going to be a huge issue, like if I was more rural or remote,” Jenkins said.

Second Thoughts?

Most of the customers interviewed by WGLT placed their pre-orders in late 2018 or early 2019, soon after Rivian’s LA Auto Show debut. Since then, many more new EV models have been announced. At least three companies—GM, Porsche, and Audi—ran Super Bowl commercials for their new EVs.

Until recently Jenkins said he hadn’t been tempted by any of those other options; Tesla’s Cybertruck, revealed in November at a lower price point than Rivian’s R1T, was too “crazy looking,” he said.

But last month, GM announced it was reviving its Hummer brand—as an electric vehicle.

“That’s the only thing that’s given me pause,” said Jenkins, whose wife occasionally drives a gas-powered Hummer. “I love the Hummer brand. I love GM. I love the image and the lifestyle aspect of the Hummer. We’re definitely waiting to see what the electric Hummer looks like.”

Bobby Sorden, who works in marketing in Colorado Springs, said he’s felt a little peer pressure to switch from his Tesla-loving friends down the street. But he’s sticking with Rivian and his SUV pre-order. He said he likes the direction Scaringe is taking the company.

Ron's truck
Credit Ron van Steenoven
Ron van Steenoven, who lives in Canada, has had his Dodge Ram for 14 years. Here it is parked outside his cabin.

“I look at the Tesla SUV (the Model X), and I just really don’t like the looks of it. The one that has the bat-wing doors that go up,” Sorden said.

Ron van Steenoven, the electrical engineer in Canada, pre-ordered the R1T pickup to replace his modified Dodge Ram. He’s seen the other options that have emerged. But he doesn’t like the look of the futuristic Cybertruck or the boxy Bollinger Motors truck.

Van Steenoven said he was impressed by Rivian’s rollout strategy—staying in stealth mode until it was ready to go. 

“Their biggest issue is gonna be the growing pains of getting it all set up and going,” van Steenoven said. “Anytime somebody comes up with something new, I take a quick look at it and go, ‘Yeah, this really doesn’t compete.’”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.