The clock is ticking louder on Rivian’s planned launch late next year of its first product, a battery-electric pickup with a claimed 400-mile range. There’s lot of work to do in a short period if the company is to meet the ambitious target.
For instance, just two weeks ago, Rivian was granted another in a series of permits to revamp the former Mitsubishi assembly plant in Normal, Ill., where the company’s electric pickup and SUV are to be built. Not only does the factory need to be retooled but a new work force needs to be hired and trained, and the production system validated before mass output and sales can start.
That alone is a lot to do in about 17 months. But if Rivian can rehire Mitsubishi employees who were furloughed when the plant was closed in mid-2016, the experienced work force might be able to reduce some of the training time.
Still, as I am with all startups, I remain skeptical of Rivian. The design, engineering and manufacturing challenges of bringing a vehicle to market with the quality, reliability, durability, refinement and performance that consumers expect is a daunting challenge even for established automakers. And even if a startup checks most of those boxes, making a consistent profit seems nearly impossible. Example: Tesla.
Also, retooling a factory and then building a new vehicle created by design, engineering and manufacturing teams that have never worked together, at a new company with a new culture, well, that amps up the complexity considerably.
To quote Ringo Starr far out of context: “It don’t come easy” — not even with a bevy of rich benefactors.
Rivian’s vehicle engineering and design center in Plymouth, Mich. — with a hip vibe, it’s not your standard tech hub.
But after a recent after-hours tour of Rivian’s Plymouth, Mich., engineering and technical center, I’d say Rivian has a fighting chance to prove itself in the marketplace. I don’t think it will run out of money before launch, like so many startups.
Though I didn’t get a chance to speak with executives or engineers, I can tell you Rivian is a real car company, not an underfunded, overhyped, ego-driven vanity project. And partially bankrolled with a $500 million cash injection from Ford, plus investments from Amazon and others, Rivian should have the resources to deliver a well-made vehicle.
Rivian’s vehicle engineering and design center, in suburban Detroit in an old factory that once built cash registers and adding machines, seems out of place for the industrial Midwest. Rivian’s tech hub has a very hip vibe to it, with an open kitchen area that has clear glass tubes on the wall filled with cereal. Dinner is catered each night to employees who work late. It has an airy feel, more like a trendy nightclub/art gallery than an engineering and design operation.
Jazzy electronic techno music oozes from speakers in the lobby, and the work areas are open. Most employees sit wherever they want and work on laptops. There are storyboards with early versions of marketing materials and charts, and pictures detailing Rivian’s brand mission, target customers and the types of consumer items they buy, from bicycle seats to backpacks and other knickknacks. One long table — full of outdoor and adventure gear — looks plucked from the shelves of a Bass Pro Shops store.
Michael McHale, the company’s head of corporate communications, shared Rivian’s roster of engineering and product development teams. The list contains a deep bench of industry veterans that gives Rivian experienced hands to manage crucial roles — critical for a new automaker.
Mark Vinnels, for example, joined Rivian as executive director of engineering and vehicle programs in 2017 after a successful run at British supercar manufacturer McLaren. At McLaren, Vinnels was executive program director responsible for the company’s road cars. Before McLaren, Vinnels worked at Lotus.
Rivian’s chief of design, Jeff Hammoud, is a Jeep veteran. He was chief designer for the current Grand Cherokee. Gary Gloceri, a former Magna International engineer, led the development of the Ford Focus Electric powertrain, according to Rivian.
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