MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
At the Detroit Auto Show this week, the big automakers are promoting trucks and SUVs, once again the bestselling vehicles in the U.S. There's also a new company knocking on the door, Rivian, which wants to be the first to sell an all-electric pickup truck. Ryan Denham of member station WGLT reports.
RYAN DENHAM, BYLINE: I'm riding in a golf cart around the massive auto plant in Normal, Ill., a hundred miles southwest of Chicago. My tour guide is Wade Jensen. He worked here three decades ago when Mitsubishi and Chrysler built cars here, cranking out hundreds of thousands every year. But three years ago, Mitsubishi shut it down and moved production to Japan. Jensen and 1,200 others lost their jobs.
Now he's back as the engineering manager for electric automaker Rivian's first assembly line. The startup plans to hire a thousand workers here in the next four years.
WADE JENSEN: When you've done it for 28 years, it's your passion. I mean, it's - it's what's in you. It's what's in your heart. It's your desire, and to have the opportunity to see this plant producing cars and putting them out the back door again, I was all in.
DENHAM: The man who's recycling this plant is Rivian founder and CEO R.J. Scaringe, a 36-year-old car geek with a Ph.D. from M.I.T. in mechanical engineering. He started work on a gas-powered, eco-sports car 10 years ago, about the time when another ambitious entrepreneur, Elon Musk and Tesla, started bringing electric cars into the mainstream. Here's Scaringe on the sidelines of the recent LA Auto Show.
RJ SCARINGE: They took the untruth that electric cars are boring and slow and flipped that and showed the world electric cars can be exciting and certainly very quick.
DENHAM: Musk is known for his bombast, tweets that move stock prices and promotions like shooting a car into space. Scaringe spent the past few years doing the opposite, staying quiet, hiring auto-industry veterans and raising a half billion dollars from Saudi and Japanese conglomerates.
At the LA Auto Show, Rivian finally revealed its electric pickup and SUV with a charging range of 400 miles. He beat Detroit to the punch.
SCARINGE: That's the opportunity we have is to show the world that this is a space that actually badly needs electrification, and electrification can make those products better than what their gasoline diesel counterparts had been in the past.
DENHAM: Rivian has only 600 employees so far. Design and engineering are done outside Detroit and in the U.K., batteries and tech in California. And about 70 people are getting the plant in Illinois up and running.
Starting a car company from scratch isn't easy. Just ask Tesla. It's hemorrhaged money, missed deadlines and freaked out investors. And it's considered a success.
Other EV startups haven't even made it to market, one reason electric vehicles here still represent a tiny part of the market, 1 percent of sales. While they may be the future, low gas prices are a challenge to electric vehicles, especially for legacy automakers.
If that changes in a few years and Ford finally puts an electric version of its bestselling F-150 on the market, Rivian would be facing stiff competition. Industry watcher Chelsea Sexton was at the LA Auto Show for Rivian's debut.
CHELSEA SEXTON: We root for all the startups, but a lot happens between concept and showroom. And it's most vulnerable for the startups.
DENHAM: Rivian's high price tag - trucks starting around $70,000 didn't - scare off Ariel Fernandez from Florida. He was among the first to plop down a thousand bucks to preorder a Rivian SUV.
ARIEL FERNANDEZ: I'm willing to invest in this company and basically put my trust in them that they're gonna produce the vehicle and make me happy when - when I pick it up.
DENHAM: Fernandez's SUV'll be made here in Illinois. But that may not be it. Rivian also plans a side business, selling its battery technology to other companies. So if electric trucks don't take off, maybe battery-powered tractors and Jet Skis will.
For NPR News, I'm Ryan Denham in Normal, Ill.
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