Nestled among the cornfields of Normal, Ill., a long-fallow stretch of land is preparing for a bumper crop this summer.
Rivian, the startup electric vehicle maker whose inaugural truck, SUV and Amazon delivery van have captured the auto world’s attention — and billions of dollars in investor seed money — is launching production in June from a converted Mitsubishi factory, and gearing up fast.
Powering through a pandemic, the first production vehicle — a $75,000 launch version of Rivian’s electric truck — will roll off the line more than a half-year behind schedule. It will be the first vehicle to be built on the site since the Mitsubishi plant closed six years ago.
“Starting a company is one thing, starting a plant is another big thing and then launching products,” said Erik Fields, 42, vice president of manufacturing at Rivian. “When you take it to the magnitude of what we’re doing here, it’s never been done before in automotive history on this scale.”
Rivian has gone from pipe dream to concept car to reality in a little over a decade. Founded in 2009 by RJ Scaringe, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate with a doctorate in mechanical engineering, the company found an unlikely home in Normal, a rural college town about 130 miles south of Chicago.
In 2016, Scaringe kicked the tires at the recently closed Mitsubushi plant. He was impressed with the well-maintained, 30-year-old factory, which once hummed along with two shifts turning out 200,000 vehicles a year. But he fell in love with Normal during a visit to the Coffee Hound, a haunt favored by college students near the Illinois State University campus.
Scaringe ended up buying the factory for $16 million from a liquidation firm in January 2017. Four years later, Scaringe is the 38-year-old CEO of an EV automaker worth nearly $28 billion before production begins. Rivian has a contract to build 100,000 custom delivery vans for Amazon, an investor in the company. Orders have been coming in since November for the launch editions of its R1T truck and R1S SUV, which have 300-plus miles of range and go from zero to 60 mph in 3 seconds.
The launch package starts at $75,000 for the truck and $77,500 for the SUV, offset by a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. Fields said the SUV won’t come off the line until a few months after the truck. He declined to give a target production run for 2021.
“We’ve had a significant response to the launch edition,” said Fields, a former vice president of operations at Nissan.
Fields is orchestrating more than 1,100 masked plant employees, and nearly as many construction workers, who filled the lot and filed into the gleaming plant on a recent weekday, putting the finishing touches on test vehicles, the production process and the $1.2 billion renovation that has turned a shuttered factory into a high-tech EV manufacturing center.
The first stop for many is a visit to the Coffee Hound, which has set up shop on a large island inside the spacious lobby of the renovated factory, a nod to Rivian’s origin story.
The Rivian plant will have 1,800 employees by its June launch and 2,500 by year’s end, along with 1,000 robots to help build vehicles, Fields said. The automaker is buying 380 acres of farmland to the west across Rivian Motorway, with plans to convert the zoning to manufacturing for longer-term expansion. Fields said the adjacent site will be the future home to warehousing, parts suppliers, a customer center to take delivery of new vehicles and perhaps a Rivian farm-to-factory agricultural operation to feed plant workers.
The town of Normal, the Illinois auto industry and the EV segment have a lot riding on Rivian’s ambitions to be the Tesla of trucks, as the broader transition from gas-powered to electric vehicles gains traction.
Last year, market leader Tesla produced and delivered about 500,000 electric vehicles, and turned a profit for the first time with a net income of $721 million on more than $31.5 billion in sales, according to its annual report. Tesla’s market cap is $672 billion — more than three times that of Ford, GM and Stellantis combined.
There are more than 1.7 million EVs on U.S. roads, a number that is projected to hit 20 million by 2030, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association representing U.S. electric companies.
Illinois has 27,282 registered electric vehicles in the state, up from 8,000 in 2017, according to Dave Druker, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office. EVs represent about 2.7% of the nearly 10 million registered vehicles in Illinois. In August, Gov. J.B. Pritzker set a goal of 750,000 EVs registered in the state by 2030.
Car shopping website Edmunds projects EVs to grow to 2.5% of new vehicle sales in 2021, up from 1.9% last year. Automakers are all in on EVs, with 30 models from 21 brands slated to hit the roads this year, according to Edmunds.
General Motors plans to offer 30 new EVs by 2025 on its way to an all-electric future, including the $112,000 GMC Hummer EV pickup due out in the fall. Volvo, which offers the XC40 EV SUV, announced last month that its entire lineup will be electric by 2030. Volkswagen is launching the all-electric ID. 4 compact SUV this spring.
Beyond the breadth of the offerings, the influx of electric SUVs and trucks is expected to bring new buyers to the market.
“The one thing that Rivian has going for it is that it seems like it plays in the space that Americans want to be in, which is trucks and SUVs,” said Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds’ executive director of insights.
A survey released Wednesday by automotive shopping site CarGurus.com found that 54% of car owners expect to own an EV in the next 10 years, but remain concerned about the availability of charging stations.
There are 41,490 public charging stations in the U.S., including 858 in Illinois, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s alternative fuels website. The network is far less developed for fast-charging stations, where drivers can fully charge their vehicles in 15 to 45 minutes, with 4,997 stations in the U.S. and only 99 in Illinois.
“EV adoption can only be successful if there’s enough charging infrastructure on all levels, at home, at work, retail, on the highways, destination charging,” said Kristof Vereenooghe, CEO of Netherlands-based EVBox, a leading builder of charging stations that opened its North American headquarters in Libertyville last summer.
EVBox chose Illinois over North Carolina, South Carolina and Michigan to be close to Rivian, Vereenooghe said. Rivian announced plans last month to build out its own proprietary fast-charging network, and EVBox is hoping to do business with the automaker down the road, he said.
There are about 50 employees in Libertyville, with plans to hire 80 more as EVBox increases production there to 200 fast-charging units per week, Vereenooghe said.
A report commissioned and published this month by Advanced Energy Economy, a national trade association of energy suppliers, projected electric transportation employment in Illinois to grow 83% to about 9,500 workers across the state by 2024, driven in large part by Rivian and support manufacturers.
To fully capitalize on employment opportunities, the state needs to spur EV adoption through regulatory and legislative action, the report concluded.
At the federal level, President Joe Biden is looking to boost electric vehicle adoption as part of his $2 trillion infrastructure plan. The proposal includes rebates, tax incentives and building a national network of 500,000 chargers by 2030.
In Illinois, the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which would push for electric vehicle adoption with state incentives and rebates, was introduced in 2019, but has stalled in Springfield.
Electric utility companies are investing nearly $3 billion to develop infrastructure and accelerate the transition to EVs, according to the Edison Electric Institute. ComEd, a unit of Chicago-based Exelon Corp. that provides electric service to about 3.8 million residential customers in northern Illinois, has made EV infrastructure a priority.
ComEd CEO Joe Dominguez said positioning the power grid to avoid bottlenecks and accommodate all of the EV charging systems projected to come online in the next few years will be job one. In addition, improving overall reliability and avoiding outages takes on new importance when electricity powers transportation, he said.
“We regard it as an urgent issue,” Dominguez said. “We can’t afford to be caught flat-footed and try to play catch-up in terms of our infrastructure. I’m absolutely open to anything that accelerates this transition.”
Rivian is facing some legal challenges, including a lawsuit filed last month by the Illinois Automobile Dealers Association for selling vehicles directly to consumers, an alleged violation of state law. In July, Tesla filed a lawsuit alleging Rivian encouraged the misappropriation of trade secrets by hiring former Tesla employees.
Now based in Irvine, California, Rivian has more than 5,000 employees overall, including its offices in Michigan and California, according to plant spokesman Zach Dietmeier.
Hiring continues at Rivian’s plant, which is receiving about 600 applications a week, Fields said. The company has hired about 100 former Mitsubishi employees, along with “heaps of people” coming out of the insurance industry, he said. State Farm is based in nearby Bloomington.
Rivian is a nonunion shop. Assembly workers start at $20 an hour, climbing to $23 after three years. Union workers at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant and the Belvidere Jeep plant near Rockford start at $17 an hour, with an average annual increase of 7.4% and a maximum wage of $28 to $30, according to the automakers.
All employees get restricted stock units in Rivian. They also get tested for COVID-19 twice a week, and hundreds got voluntary on-site vaccinations, Fields said.
When the Mitsubishi plant closed amid waning production in July 2015, it left 1,100 people out of work — the number now employed there by Rivian. The factory itself looks similar from the outside, but it’s a whole new world on the inside.
The space feels more Silicon Valley than Detroit, with skylights and live pine trees adorning the glassed-in stairwell leading to the second floor, where Rivian engineers, administrative personnel and executives share an open office with white boards in every nook.
Creative repurposing of the old plant includes round tables made from obsolete Mitsubishi robots that dot the upstairs office space.
A cafeteria serves three meals a day at no charge to employees, a welcome amenity amid the cornfields and barren crossroads of the plant’s environs.
The factory floor is a living mural visible behind glass walls, with workers in yellow vests examining Rivian SUVs, trucks and Amazon vans in various stages of completion.
At this stage, the plant is producing about one finished vehicle per day, Fields said, including the R1T truck and R1S SUV, for testing, training and refining the assembly process. The test vehicles, some dressed in camouflage paint to discourage photographs when released into the wild, are destined to ply roadways but will not be sold to the public, he said. Others meet their end in crash tests.
In a distant area of the plant, an army of massive blue robots are corralled, awaiting deployment as production ramps up.
One Rivian innovation has not stood the test of time. In the fall of 2019, when Rivian held an open house in Normal’s town circle, its nearby factory was a hulking work in progress, guarded by coyote statues overlooking an empty parking lot in a vain attempt to chase away geese, who still roam the 503-acre site at will.
The coyotes have been let go.
“They’re not here,” said Dietmeier. “They don’t effectively scare the geese like they’re meant to.”