By Matt McFarland, CNN Business
Today Tesla dominates the world of electric vehicles, selling about two of every three EVs sold in the US. It’s worth more than twice as much as any other automaker. Teslas are a status symbol and its CEO, Elon Musk, is a celebrity, with 59 million more Twitter followers than the next most popular automotive CEO.
But there’s a portion of the market that wants an electric car and is specifically turned off by Tesla’s lineup, its CEO, and in some cases, both. That could prove to be a boon for one of its rivals.
CNN Business interviewed 12 drivers who have pre-orders with Rivian, the US automaker focused on electric trucks and SUVs that’s expected to go public later this year. They say a key part of Rivian’s appeal is how different it is from Tesla.
The vehicles are a better fit for an outdoorsy lifestyle, and they look more conventional, with squared-off styling and a rugged appearance, they say. Many Rivian enthusiasts said they soured on Musk, especially his tweets, and found themselves identifying more with Rivian’s low-profile CEO, RJ Scaringe. Some said Rivian’s environmental focus seemed more sincere, and its mission more focused on people than Tesla and Musk.
“I really don’t like jerk CEOs. It puts me off from the product,” said Carter Gibson, who off-roads and snowboards in California, and has ordered a Rivian to replace his Toyota 4Runner.
Some electric vehicle enthusiasts say their views of Musk have changed over the years. They point to the time when Musk called a rescue worker in Thailand a “pedo guy,” as well as his comments about Tesla’s stock price that have drawn Securities and Exchange Commission scrutiny and a reprimand. (Musk has mocked the SEC, too.)
“Sometimes Musk can come across as a Bond villain or something, RJ does not give me those vibes,” said Stephen Henken of Montgomery, Alabama, who drives a Prius today and has ordered a Rivian R1S.
Scaringe, who has a PhD in mechanical engineering from MIT, founded Rivian in 2009, and in the following 12 years the company has diligently set about turning itself into a real, full-fledged automaker before ever selling a single car.
The company purchased a former Mitsubishi manufacturing plant in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, in 2017. Rivian has raised $10.5 billion since 2019, including from tech and automotive titans Amazon and Ford, respectively, and has a deal with Amazon for 100,000 delivery trucks.
But Rivian’s success is not guaranteed. It’s too young to have built brand loyalty or a nationwide network to service its vehicles. It will have to prove, too, that it can mass produce vehicles at a profit, a challenge Tesla has already survived, though not without hiccups.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment and generally does not engage with the professional news media.
A true electric truck
Matt Thomson, a Denver real estate agent, says he spends up to $700 a month on gas for his GMC Sierra, taking clients to view homes or towing his horses. He said he’s grown tired of needing an oil change every other month.
Thomson says he’s not generally a risk-taker, or an early adopter. But he’s placed a pre-order for Rivian’s pickup truck, the R1T, and his wife has a pre-order for the company’s SUV, the R1S.
Thomson said he’s waited eight years for someone to make a truck like Rivian’s. He felt Tesla’s vehicles weren’t a good fit. Tesla’ Model X can tow only 5,000 pounds, and Thomson isn’t interested in the distinct, boxy stylings and sharp lines of Tesla’s Cybertruck, which has been both praised and the butt of jokes.
“When we pull into a horse show now you’ve got [Ford] F-150s, you’ve got GMC Sierras, [Chevy] Silverados and that’s it,” Thomson said. “You just kind of want to blend in.”
Andy Crews, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, said he’s always loved his dad’s pickup, but felt guilty about it getting just 12 miles per gallon. He hikes or runs every day on trails, and has been waiting for an electric pick-up, he said. Crews said he loves Tesla and has owned a Model S since 2013, but doesn’t want a Cybertruck.
“It’s built out of freaking steel,” Crews said, “but it looks ugly.”
“It’s probably actually a very practical vehicle, if there’s an apocalypse,” he added.
Rivian, on the other hand, sells itself as an earthy, adventure-focused company. Scaringe has said that the company’s mission is to “inspire people to do more of the things they love, while minimizing our impact on the planet.”
Rivian’s paint colors have names like glacier white, forest green and compass yellow. The company offers an option to purchase a tent that mounts atop its vehicles, and it sells specific mounts for bikes, snowboards, skis, kayaks and surfboards. Traditional automakers like Ford, GM and Subaru offer similar attachments; Tesla does not.
“Rivian has thought more than Tesla about who is going to be driving it, what they’re going to be feeling when they’re driving it and what they’re going to be doing,” said Ryan Michael McCarthy, who describes himself as not a pick-up truck guy. He wants Rivian’s truck because it seems so functional: it has a $5,000 option for a small kitchen that pulls out of the side of the vehicle, complete with a stove, sink and utensils.
McCarthy, who lives outside Chicago, said that watching Rivian’s videos, like employees testing the vehicles in minus-40 degrees, attracted him.
“They feel like a family,” McCarthy said. “You feel like you want to be a part of them and their culture.”
New Jersey resident Matt Bowen, who describes himself as a “jaded millennial,” said it’s rare to see a company that he feels cares as much about its customers as the product itself. He was impressed with the gifts Rivian had sent some future customers, including a welcome package for a puppy, and its environmental and community partnerships.
“It’s an all-around mission and I like that,” said Bowen, a father who lives on a farm and has pre-ordered a Rivian SUV. “We’re glad there’s an alternative to the Model X that suits more of our needs, and I think will fit in better with our lifestyle and our philosophy.”
Crews said that he felt Rivian was trying especially hard to fight global warming. He pointed to Rivian’s pledge that its exclusive charging network for its vehicles will be powered by 100% renewable energy.
Tesla has said several times since 2012 that its Supercharger network will be powered only by renewables. A Tesla employee reportedly said this past April that the network would become all renewables by year’s end. (The employee’s statement on LinkedIn is no longer available.)
Overpromising and under-delivering?
Renewable energy is one of several cases where Rivian pre-holders felt that Tesla had overpromised and under-delivered. Another example they cited was Tesla’s Autopilot and “full self-driving” technology, which has been delayed repeatedly.
Of course, there’s a risk that Rivian itself will overpromise and under-deliver. It has delayed delivery of its vehicles before, and the road to full-rate production may inevitably come with its own challenges.
David Kirsch, a professor at the University of Maryland’s business school, said Rivian’s team, product and investors all look promising, but there are no guarantees it will meet expectations. Rivian is the first to market with a modern electric pick-up, but it remains to be seen exactly how much demand there are for electric pick-ups.
Rivian will also have to prove that it can mass produce vehicles at a profit. There are always uncertainties for new automakers when moving from batch production to mass production. Costs could increase, which could cut into Rivian’s profits, or totally wipe them out.
“Rivian is being priced as if it’s already crossed the production hell chasm,” Kirsch said of reports Rivian is being valued as much as Ford or GM. “It might take a lot more time or money, or they might run out of time and money.”
Provided Rivian can manufacture at scale, it will also have to show that it can adequately support and service its trucks after sale, something Tesla has struggled with at times.
“You see concept images of a car, you get excited. You see a facility to build it, you get excited. You see production versions and get more excited,” said Karl Brauer, executive analyst at iSeeCars.com. “But none of that means anything once the person buys the car.”
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