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MIT Technology Review

The Rivian pickup’s real edge over Tesla’s Cybertruck isn’t its battery

The electric vehicle startup’s platform approach helped it raise nearly $3 billion this year.

December 23, 2019
Tesla Cybertruck v. Rivian R1TTesla Cybertruck v. Rivian R1T
Tesla Cybertruck v. Rivian R1T
Courtesy: Tesla and Rivian

The sheer spectacle of Tesla’s Cybertruck unveiling, from the severe angles to the smashed windows, will go down as the biggest news in electric pickup trucks this year.

But a rival startup that has yet to deliver a single truck arguably had a more monumental 2019—and, in the end, may do more to create a market for these vehicles.

On Monday, Rivian announced it had raised $1.3 billion in its fourth funding round of the year, led by T. Rowe Price, bringing its total for 2019 to nearly $2.9 billion. Meanwhile, the company struck deals to produce 100,000 delivery vans for Amazon and provide technology that Ford will use to develop its next-generation electric vehicle. Both of those companies were also among Rivian’s major investors this year.

Rivian has been quietly developing vehicles for a decade, but it seized the industry’s attention in late 2018, when it unveiled a pair of eye-catching, high-end electric trucks. The R1T pickup and R1S SUV promised to be all-electric versions of what American consumers like: big, tough-looking trucks (but not necessarily postapocalyptic ones like Tesla’s). They’re built to handle off-road conditions and supposedly will run for more than 400 miles with an add-on battery. (Initial deliveries are slated for the end of 2020.)

But Rivian is pursuing a much bigger play here. The company’s own vehicles, as well as Amazon’s and Ford’s, will all be built upon the company’s so-called “skateboard” chassis. It packages together the battery, suspension, braking system, and mechanical components all below the height of the wheels, lowering the vehicle’s center of gravity. That improves handling and increases storage space, the company says.

Above all, it’s a flexible system that other companies can build on top of, potentially easing the path for incumbent automakers to develop their own lines of electric vehicles. The Ford partnership will be a test of that. “We can lev­erage our skateboard technology in its entirety or sell pieces of it, such as the battery pack,” R.J. Scaringe, Rivian’s founder and chief executive, previously told Forbes.

By providing such a platform technology, Rivian is positioning itself as a sort of Microsoft to Tesla’s Apple—hoping it can capture a larger share of the market. If that gamble works, Rivian could do far more to accelerate the shift to low-emissions electric vehicles than any single company focused on producing its own cars and trucks could—whether they’re “bulletproof” or not.

Then again, there are hundreds of thousands of Teslas on the roads, while Rivian hasn’t even started offering test drives, so all of this depends heavily on the performance living up to the hype.