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EV Startup Rivian Rolls Out Refreshing Product Strategy

Scott Shepard
Dec 04, 2018

Smart Car 5

In late November, startup EV maker Rivian debuted its first offering, the R1T. It is one of two adventure vehicles that Rivian plans to bring to market starting in 2020. Historically EV startup debuts like this have prompted eyerolls because they often replicate what established automakers are doing rather than breaking into new territory. For example, Faraday’s debuts of the FFZero1 and then FF91 showed major strategy flaws like going where your competition is—that’s something established companies can do, not startups. Startups must advance big ideas not yet in the market. Rivian appears to be doing just that with the R1T.

What's the Product?

The R1T is a fully electric pickup crew-cab short-bed layout, to be produced with a range between 230 and 400 miles. It is not a work truck. If it does make it to market, it will compete in the premium high performance off-road truck segment currently led by the Ford F-150 Raptor. The vehicle is to be built on a skateboard chassis. Rivian plans to sell this similarly to how Ford sells stripped chassis and cutaways to upfitters, which then produce variants of box vans, shuttles, etc. Generating a revenue stream here would help the Rivian scale one of the most expensive components of the vehicle.

How Does Rivian Stand Next to Competition?

Other automakers are also looking at this opportunity. Tesla is planning to debut its pickup truck not long after it debuts its next crossover, the Model Y, come spring. Meanwhile Ford, which is planning to bring a hybrid F-150 (non plug-in) to the market, is expected to eventually produce a plug-in offering in this category. If Rivian keeps to its timeline, which would also be a first for a startup EV maker, it would be first in the market.

Rivian also has advantages on would-be competitors. With Tesla, the advantage is branding. Tesla is a powerhouse here, but its brand is sleek and sexy, not rugged. Tesla competes against BMW, Daimler, and Audi, but not Ford, Chevrolet/GMC, and Jeep—replicating its success when it comes to off-road vehicles may prove difficult. Against Ford and any other established automaker, underdog status is the advantage—Rivian could do to Ford, Chevrolet/GMC, and Jeep what Tesla has done to BMW, Daimler, and Audi.

Rivian’s Strategy

Beyond these advantages, Rivian is targeting an opportunity that is somewhat insulated from the upcoming disruptions of vehicle automation. No doubt, every new vehicle product strategy must incorporate some level of self-driving capability. Rivian claims its products will too. However, demands for this capability are less in a vehicle made for an adventure, which implies a need for a driver even in a heavily automated future. Brands without a specialty that compete in the mass market are likely to be gobbled up by automakers at the forefront of self-driving cars. 

There is a good chance that in the future, few individual consumers will own cars. When that happens, automakers outside the mainstream will be best positioned to survive the coming consolidation. That said, the success of every EV startup since Tesla is zero. So if Rivian never gets the RT1 to market, it won’t be surprising. At least for now, it appears to have a compelling product and strategy to boot.