A line of pickup trucks leads to a makeshift camp of a rehabbed motel in the shadow of Breckenridge ski resort in Colorado. Up here at 9,600 feet, pickup trucks not only outnumber mountain peaks, they also outnumber the state’s unofficial vehicle, a Subaru Anything. This line of Rivian R1T pickups is different, however: They are the first mass-produced electric pickup truck, and they’ve never been seen in the wild until now. 

The Rivian team, led by founder and CEO RJ Scaringe, gathers around a campfire and one of two campfire stoves. The star of tonight’s gathering, the camp stove slides out of the gear tunnel of the 2022 Rivian R1T pickup and hooks up to the truck’s 110V outlet. The foldable stove simmers with pots of curry, one chicken, the other vegan, that take a bite out of the frigid nighttime temps. 

Long, lean, and vegan himself, the 38-year-old Scaringe eventually takes the latter, long after the guests and staff of the electric car company he founded in 2009 have finished dessert. Wearing glasses and a ball cap with the rim pulled low and puffer jacket zipped high, Scaringe defers to his team even as he’s called on to make informal remarks in this informal setting. 

Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe

Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe

There are no presentations or sales recaps, no brand buffing or virtual cameos from far flung executives, at the first drive program for the brand’s much anticipated first vehicle. Most of Team Rivian is here, and many of them are like Scaringe. Affable and gregarious, Scaringe asks about people’s flights and their hometowns, then listens intently to everything from drive plans to beloved but neglected garage projects. When Rivian folk or guests talk about their crazy car rebuilds, he gets animated with recollections and possibilities. 

“Mason got hit by a car,” Scaringe says, to me as much as to the six other designers and engineers circling their wagons around our conversation. “You hear about that?”

Mason Verbridge, Project Engineer, Drive Unit who has been with the company for eight years, dismisses the reference and refocuses the conversation onto the four-motor drive unit that is key to Rivian’s electric platform. 

A Michigan lake house provides a compelling origin story. Scaringe rented it at the beginning, and welcomed his small but committed team to stay free of charge as they developed the vision that would become Rivian.  

“There’s a lot of house stories, lot of weird stories, that didn’t seem as crazy at the time,” Scaringe says as the group breaks into muffled guffaws and side chats. “When I started the company in 2009, it was a tough time to start a company. GM and Chrysler were both in bankruptcy; clean tech had not gone well for a lot of investors.”

The group clams up as Scaringe explains why he insisted on starting a car company at that automotive and economic low point.

“The likelihood of success was very low but the likelihood of learning a lot and having a lot of fun was high...it fit my personality more to take the higher risk return strategy. Within a couple months we hired...Max—”

“If you had told me that you thought the likelihood was very low, I don’t think I would have joined,” Max Koff, director of vehicle dynamics, says with both incredulity and amusement. One of Scaringe’s first hires, fresh out of college himself, Koff has been with Rivian for 12 years. “You sold me on that and we were gonna launch in 2013.”

2022 Rivian R1T

2022 Rivian R1T

Clearly, that did not happen. Here everyone chimes in, including Mason, with mention of the coupe, the first incarnation of a Rivian. In their words, “The Coupe” sounds to have taken on mythic proportion as a foundational first misstep, yet a beloved misstep no less.  

“The coupe, rear-wheel drive, gas or diesel with a front electric motor,” Koff says.

“Parallel through the road,” Mason adds. 

“We have a garage somewhere with all those things in it,” Scaring says. 

“The blue coupe is not in Michigan but the other ones are,” says Brian Gase, chief engineer of special projects, who has been with Rivian nearly since the beginning and is as well known for his dad jokes as he is for his cardigans. “We should museum em.”

Rivian sports coupe

Rivian sports coupe

Good thing for the long view. It’s been 12 years in the making, and more than 20 years since a 17-year-old Scaringe decided he wanted to build his own car company. That age is prone to wild ideas and idealistic dreams, but this one stuck for Scaringe and his team of mostly young car nuts who bought into a man and his vision. 

“I loved cars since I was a kid,” says Scaringe, who was born in 1983 in Rockledge, Fla. “I wanted to start a car company, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t know what it was gonna be or how I was gonna do it, so I went to school for engineering and I knew startup businesses needed a lot of support and capital so I decided to get a PhD (in Mechanical Engineering at the Sloan Automotive Lab at MIT) to add a level of credibility.” 

“Did that work?” Koff chides. 

“The PhD?”

“The credibility,” Koff says. 

“I’m still working on it,” Scaringe replies, without missing a beat. “The PhD I did.”

There have been a lot of hard lessons learned transforming a passion project into a global company.

“I’ve been working on this for my whole adult life,” Scaringe explains. “The hard part is you don’t have money, you don’t have suppliers, you don’t have technology, you don’t have product, the product plan is loosely thought through and you have to convince capable people to come join. I had to convince these guys to come join. Max and Mason were easier than Brian, who had kids. 

“That was the inflection point when it became very real, when we went from hiring people who didn’t have families or dependents, then I got really nervous, like man, they have kids we have to make this work.”

An infectious camaraderie percolates through the campsite. We’re gathered around a campfire, where Scaringe’s kids, aged 5, 3, and 2, roast marshmallows with help from Rivian veterans. It feels familial, engineers from outside Detroit joking with comms folk from southern California, veterans who have been here since the beginning and recent hires onboarded for the ramp-up of the company’s first two products. 

First customer Rivian R1T (from Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe via Twitter)

First customer Rivian R1T (from Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe via Twitter)

“I started four days after my son’s first birthday,” Gase says, “And moved from Michigan with my wife and son to Florida because these two guys (pointing to Koff and Scaringe).”

If it seemed like a big risk at the time, Gase downplays it now. Much like the car shopping experience for many owners, it came down to a matter of feel more than pure logic for Gase.

“When I came in to interview, these two guys were like, ‘We’re gonna do it, it’s gonna be great,’ and I was like, you guys are crazy. I am so in.”

Why did he do it?

“It’s the people, 100%,” Gase says. “When you walk into a room and everyone believes they can do something better as a team than they can do on their own, and they’re going to find a way, it’s...when I left the interview I was like these people think the way I think and I want to be a part of it.”

The “it” has become the R1T pickup truck and forthcoming R1S SUV, two of the most anticipated vehicles of the year, if not years. But the “it” goes much deeper, which is another reason why Rivian is the most anticipated new brand to launch its first vehicle since Tesla. 

“I started the business, to have impact,” Scaringe explains. “To make the world materially better than it was when we showed up. The way we define that has evolved as well. For us it was products that were exciting, products where people come together, to generate an experience for years and years to come. But do it in a way that’s sustainable, so that our kids and our kids’ kids’ kids can enjoy the planet with the atmosphere intact, with biodiversity intact. 

“The motivation around building something sustainable and fun has been at the core and we have iterated many times what sustainable means and what does the scale of that mean. Early on we didn’t fully appreciate the scale at which we could develop and build what we’re building. It was more, let’s build a car as opposed to let’s build a full business with a portfolio of products and technology stacks that can scale across many different products.”

Comparisons to Tesla, America’s only other mass-produced electric vehicle automaker, are inevitable and overwrought. Yet Scaringe is sanguine about a company that could be considered both a competitor and collaborator. 

Rivian CEO and founder RJ Scaringe

Rivian CEO and founder RJ Scaringe

“I think (Rivian and Tesla) are very much aligned in what we’re trying to accomplish. The way we go about is different, the product is different, the company is different, and I think that’s good.

“One of the things I talk about all the time is we far too often think that our success requires someone else’s failure. When we look at the conversion of the entire global fleet to electric, we’re not talking about competing over a couple million units, we’re talking about how do we convert 1.4-1.5 billion—with a B—cars to electric, when today the number of electric cars on the planet is less than 10 million. The scale of that requires multiple companies, with different approaches, different brand perspectives, different ways of formulating teams, different ways of operating those teams to come together and create products and, of course, compete. But the winners are we help make this transition much faster.”

Comparisons to the R1T and the promised but unrealized Tesla Cybertruck follow this same logic, which can also apply to legacy automakers and their electric trucks, such as the forthcoming Ford F-150 Lightning and GMC Hummer EV. It’s a matter of taste.

“I think it’s good to have a product like (the Cybertruck) in the market, it’s so different from what we're doing,” Scaringe says. “It appeals in such a different way to different types of customers.

“Back to my point: if the objective is to move all the vehicles on the planet to electrification you need lots of different flavors. Draw the analogy to ice cream: if the whole world only sold vanilla ice cream, we’d sell a lot less ice cream. So it’s good there’s many different flavors. We have a specific flavor, Cybertruck has a specific flavor.”

After much debate, the assembled Rivianeers concluded that their flavor is Rocky Road—or, for Scaringe, maybe make that sorbet.