NORMAL, Ill. — By definition, the time of the world’s richest man is pretty valuable. But early last fall, Jeff Bezos sought out a 36-year old entrepreneur named R.J. Scaringe and spent the better part of a day in Plymouth, Mich., at the company he founded, Rivian.
Mr. Bezos got a preview of Rivian’s electric pickup truck and sport-utility vehicle and liked what he saw. Not long after his visit, Amazon led a $700 million investment in Rivian. Two months later, in April, Ford Motor invested $500 million. All told, Rivian has raised $1.7 billion without selling a single truck or S.U.V.
If you have not heard of Rivian before, well, that was intentional. Until recently, it was in stealth mode, operating out of unmarked buildings and making few public announcements. But no longer. By the end of 2020, Rivian intends to begin producing premium electric vehicles, with a greater range than anything on the road today.
Rivian is promising to do for trucks what Tesla did for luxury cars.
That’s where the similarities between the two electric automobile makers end. Even as Tesla and its brash chief executive, Elon Musk, made headlines by setting and falling short of some audacious goals, Mr. Scaringe and Rivian has spent a decade fine-tuning their designs.
Walking around a former Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill., Mr. Scaringe points to where stamping presses will churn out car parts like fenders and doors. But he is hoping to do more than sell cars. Mr. Scaringe wants to dispel myths he thinks still surround electric vehicles.
“We have a number of untruths — a truck can’t be electric, an electric car can’t go off road, it can’t get dirty, it can’t tow and truck buyers don’t want something that’s environmentally friendly,” he said. “These things are fundamentally wrong. Electrification and technology can create a truck that’s incredibly capable and fun to drive.”
In addition to developing advanced battery systems, Rivian has also designed a skateboard-like chassis that it plans to sell to other carmakers. For Ford, investing in Rivian is a way to leapfrog the competition and get new ideas from a start-up as it and other automakers race to prepare for an electrified future.
Amazon has been mum about its interest in the company, but Rivian’s vehicles could help the retail giant reduce its carbon footprint as it builds its own distribution network.
The automobile business has fearsome barriers to entry, and aspiring players have to ante up billions of dollars just to be dealt into a game where profit margins tend to be slim.
Mr. Scaringe is likely to need billions more to get as far as Tesla, which itself struggled to expand production in 2017 and 2018. But the demand for electric vehicles is there — Tesla built more than 250,000 cars in 2018.
Mr. Scaringe founded Mainstream Motors, the business that would later become Rivian, in 2009 after completing a doctorate in mechanical engineering at M.I.T.
His timing was odd to say the least — the financial crisis had made investors skittish, and the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler did not bode well for an automotive start-up.
Family and friends provided the initial funding, and Mr. Scaringe and his father both took out second mortgages to raise money. Rivian takes its name from Florida’s Indian River, close to where Mr. Scaringe grew up in Melbourne, Fla.
Mr. Scaringe and a small team worked for two-and-a-half years to create a fuel-efficient sports car, but he ultimately pulled the plug in 2011. “In my heart and soul, I knew I wasn’t answering the fundamental question of why the world needs this company to be successful,” he said.
It was a painful moment. At one point, the team had worked through four nights in a row, said Roman Mistiuk, now a senior interior designer at Rivian. “When the vehicle was done, R.J. said we’re switching.”
The small band of employees stuck with him, and when Mr. Scaringe moved the company to Michigan, they followed him north. At one point, Mr. Scaringe, his girlfriend (now wife) and several Rivian staff members lived together in a house in the Detroit suburbs.
Except for sleeping, they talked cars day and night. “It was breakfast, lunch and dinner, 24/7,” Mr. Scaringe said.
Early backing from Saudi and Japanese investors provided the runway for Rivian to develop its electric vehicle designs.
“Fortunately, my personality is one that I never lost confidence I could do it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I always knew how I was going to do it.”
Much like what he is building, Mr. Scaringe is in constant motion, splitting his time between the company’s engineering headquarters in Plymouth, the factory in Normal and two other offices in Irvine and San Jose in California.
That leaves little time for him to spend with his wife and three sons, the oldest of whom is 3. “Rivian is 100 percent minus family,” Mr. Scaringe said, estimating that his wife and children get about 5 percent of his time.
Rivian is the culmination of a lifelong dream. Mr. Scaringe grew up rebuilding vintage Porsches under the tutelage of a neighbor and he knew he wanted to start a car company when he was 18.
“It became the plan when I started college,” he said. “Then I started putting the pieces together.”
At M.I.T., Mr. Scaringe made his ambitions clear, recalls Dan Roos, a retired engineering professor who served as the director of the university’s Center for Transportation Studies.
“He said, ‘I’m going to start an auto company’,” Mr. Roos said. “When you hear a student say that, it’s like saying I’m going to change the world. It’s nice but highly unlikely. But he was very determined about what he was going to do.”
As much as he loved cars, Mr. Scaringe said he was deeply troubled by their role as a cause of climate change, air pollution and other ills. “I wanted to have an impact and the highest impact approach was to build the company myself,” he said.
Mr. Scaringe, an outdoorsy type who enjoys mountain biking, wants his cars to be able to go off road. Rivian trucks and S.U.V.s can operate in three feet of standing water. A ballistic liner protects the battery pack so drivers can take the vehicle into rugged terrain without worrying that rocks and other objects could penetrate the undercarriage.
Rivian’s R1S S.U.V. bears a resemblance to a Range Rover, while the flatbed in its R1T pickup is shorter than the best-selling Ford F-150. “Rivian’s products are not really meant to be work trucks,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst with IHS. “They aim to be lifestyle products, capable but meant for recreational use.”
The R1S will directly challenge Tesla’s S.U.V., the Model X, and although Mr. Musk has said he will introduce a pickup, Tesla has yet to unveil one
The R1S and the R1T will start at around $70,000 and cost more than $90,000 for fully loaded models that can travel up to 400 miles on a full charge. Rivian has received tens of thousands of reservations from buyers who have made deposits of $1,000 each.
“Targeting the premium pickup and S.U.V. market in the U.S. was smart,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal auto analyst at Navigant Research. “Those are the kind of vehicles Americans want to buy, as opposed to a compact car or midsized sedan.” Profit margins are higher too, especially for luxury models.
As different as Mr. Scaringe is from Mr. Musk, the two share some qualities. Mr. Scaringe is a control freak who weighs in on everything from the color of bathroom tiles to the lighting in the assembly plant.
Rivian employees describe Mr. Scaringe in worshipful, almost mystical tones, echoing the kind of adoration that Mr. Musk inspires. Designers laud his sophisticated design sensibilities. Brand experts cite his marketing know-how.
“I’ve spent years trying to decode R.J. and predict what he wants,” said Larry Parker, creative director at Rivian. “He’s moving so fast. Sometimes we don’t know where he is going. To keep up with R.J. is not easy.”
Jeff Hammoud, Rivian’s head of design said Mr. Scaringe was the reason he was willing to leave his job as the top designer at Jeep. “It’s amazing how much he is able to absorb,” Mr. Hammoud said.
But there are idiosyncrasies beneath the surface. Mr. Scaringe usually dresses in blue (“Blue is my favorite color!”), occasionally flannel. On his birthday, many employees wear flannel on what’s known as “Dress Like R.J. Day.”
To provide fresh food for his employees, Mr. Scaringe wants to turn the grassy areas that surround the plant in Normal into a farm. “The goal is let’s make this the best place to eat in town,” he said.
Asked about Rivian’s rivalry with Tesla, Mr. Scaringe would not disparage the competition. He credits Tesla for changing the perception of electric cars as “boring and slow, or glorified golf carts.”
While Tesla has failed to reach its own lofty production targets in recent years, Mr. Scaringe is only promising about 20,000 to 40,000 vehicles in 2021, the first full year of production.
Before that happens, Rivian will have to create assembly lines for its vehicles and batteries, which Tesla’s problems have shown is very difficult. The company will also have to establish a retail operation to get its vehicles to buyers.
“Manufacturing is the biggest challenge,” said Mike Ramsey, an analyst with Gartner. “The capital requirements are enormous and ceaseless.”
Even as Rivian has grown and new investors have come aboard, Mr. Scaringe has made clear he wants to hold the reins tight. General Motors discussed investing in the company this year, according to two people familiar with the negotiations who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. But the automaker and Mr. Scaringe could not agree on terms. G.M. was demanding more control and exclusivity than he was comfortable with.
For inspiration, Mr. Scaringe looks to Alex Honnold, a rock climber who scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan without equipment. A poster for a documentary about the climb, “Free Solo,” is on the wall of Mr. Scaringe’s office in Plymouth.
“Hindsight has a lot of advantages, one of which is that everything looks crisper and cleaner, but at the time you don’t know the path forward,” he said. “So you’re going up this infinitely steep climb.”