Michigan startup unveils pricey electric pickup you can take off-road

It still has all the features of a standard truck

By PETER VALDES-DAPENA, CNN BUSINESS
Rivian via CNN

Michigan startup Rivian has unveiled a pricey all-electric truck that the company says can tow and off-road as well as a traditional pickup.

(CNN) - The Rivian R1T, an electric pickup from a Michigan-based startup, looks kind of like a Japanese cartoon version of a truck.

It lacks the gaping chrome-edged grill of a Ford F-150, Ram 1500 or Chevrolet Silverado because an electric truck has no engine demanding air for burning and cooling. Instead of rectangular sets of deadly-serious looking headlights, it has friendly little ovals. Where most trucks look angry, the R1T looks like it wants to play.

But don't be misled by the disarming face. Rivian boasts that the R1T can carry nearly 1,800 pounds of payload and can tow 11,000 pounds. It can also go from zero to 60 miles an hour in about three seconds when equipped with a large battery pack, and drive through more than three feet of water. These claims have yet to be tested, but they're plausible for an all-wheel-drive electric truck.

Far more surprising: It has a hole right through middle of it. Stretching side-to-side just ahead of the back wheels, it provides a lockable space, with doors at both ends, for stowing gear like a snowboard, golf clubs or fishing poles.

One way in which the R1T seems fairly traditional is in its overall shape. It has a big hood up front which might seem strange considering there's no engine there. Instead, that's additional lockable storage space — essentially a big trunk. The hood even powers up and down just like a power liftgate on an SUV.

All of this comes at a price, though. With a starting price of $69,000, the R1T is definitely a luxury product. (That's $61,500 after a federal tax credit.) While one can certainly get a luxuriously equipped Ford or Chevrolet pickup for a price like that, you won't be able to get an R1T for any less. At least not at first. And if you want to drive a long way before recharging — up to 400 miles — you'll have to pay more for a bigger battery pack.

"We're not trying to compete across the whole price spectrum with the F-150," said Rivian CEO R.J Scaringe.

He describes Rivian's vehicles as "more aspirational products." He does not see the pickup as something likely to be found on a job site, despite its strength and the fact that it has electrical plugs in the bed.

"The types of use cases we're thinking about are towing a boat, towing a trailer, towing your jet skis," Scaringe said. "These types of more lifestyle-oriented use cases."

A couple of days after unveiling the pickup, Rivian also revealed an SUV, the R1S, with a starting price of $72,000. While it has the truck's same pinchably cute face, the SUV looks traditionally SUV-like. Its shape — like stacked blocks — suggests a Land Rover reduced to its most fundamental form.

Built on the same battery platform as the pickup (Rivian calls it a skateboard), the SUV can be equipped with seating for up to seven passengers. Like the truck, it's engineered to excel off-road. Where most all-wheel-drive electric vehicles have two electric motors, one driving the front wheels and one driving the back, the Rivian vehicles have four, one spinning each wheel. That allows for discrete moment-by-moment control of the power being delivered to each tire, which is ideal for driving through harsh or sloppy terrain.

Rivian is headquartered in Plymouth, Michigan, not far from Detroit. The company plans to begin building both vehicles in late 2020 at a former Mitsubishi factory in Normal, Illinois.

Karl Brauer, publisher at Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader, was shown both vehicles at the Los Angeles Auto Show last week and remains skeptical of the company's long-term prospects.

"It's much easier to produce a lot of impressive specifications than it is to produce an actual car," he said, "and, honestly, even easier to produce an actual car than it is to produce an actual car at high volume and retail it."

These are all areas where Tesla, up until now the only marginally successful startup automaker in decades, has struggled repeatedly. The biggest challenge for companies like Rivian is that they're up against established automakers who have been doing all these things for over a century. Designing a compelling product is only the start.

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