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Electric truck start-up Rivian announces $700 million investment round led by Amazon

Key Points
  • Amazon led a $700 million round of funding in Rivian, a Michigan-based electric vehicle startup. 
  • Rivian plans to launch an electric pickup and electric SUV in the U.S. in 2020.
Rivian R1T electric truck
Source: Rivian

Electric truck start-up and potential Tesla rival Rivian announced a $700 million investment round led by Amazon on Friday.

The announcement comes less than three months after Rivian revealed its first two products, an all-electric pickup and SUV that, some analysts have said, could pose a direct challenge to both established truck manufacturers like General Motors and Ford, as well as upstart Tesla which is developing its own battery-electric pickup.

The Friday morning announcement comes just days after reports began circulating that GM would join Amazon in the new round of financing. But a well-placed source involved in the negotiations told CNBC that "you don't find all the presents under the Christmas tree," suggesting that another development is in the works, one that could come at or before the New York Auto Show in April where Rivian is scheduled to hold a news conference.

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"This investment is an important milestone for Rivian and the shift to sustainable mobility," said RJ Scaringe, Rivian founder and CEO. "Beyond simply eliminating compromises that exist around performance, capability and efficiency, we are working to drive innovation across the entire customer experience. Delivering on this vision requires the right partners, and we are excited to have Amazon with us on our journey to create products, technology and experiences that reset expectations of what is possible."

The announcement did not detail how much Amazon specifically will invest in Rivian. For the ecommerce giant, the move follows barely a week after it joined in with venture capital firm Sequoia, as well as Lightspeed Venture Partners, Shell Ventures and others, to take a stake in Aurora. That deal put a roughly $2.5 billion valuation on Aurora, an autonomous vehicle technology start-up run by Waymo and Tesla alumni.

Exactly why Amazon would want to make such moves remains hazy, though it follows steps taken by other high-tech firms, such as Alphabet and Apple to explore opportunities in electrified and autonomous mobility.

Amazon, in particular, has been looking for ways to change up its delivery methods which currently rely on traditional partners such as the USPS and UPS. Some industry analysts have speculated that Amazon could be interested in Rivian's platform for developing vehicles for its massive global logistics needs.

"We're inspired by Rivian's vision for the future of electric transportation," said Jeff Wilke, Amazon's worldwide consumer CEO. "RJ has built an impressive organization, with a product portfolio and technology to match. We're thrilled to invest in such an innovative company."

The round included investments from Rivian's existing shareholders. The start-up will remain an independent company. Rivian currently has more than 750 employees located in several locations, including Plymouth, Michigan; San Jose and Irvine, California; Normal, Illinois; and Surrey, England.

The fact that GM was not included in Friday morning's announcement does not mean the Detroit automaker won't subsequently take a stake in Rivian. GM issued a terse release earlier this week that notably sidestepped the question, only stating that "We admire Rivian's contribution to a future of zero-emissions and an all-electric future."

Until recently, few expected to see a competitive, battery-powered electric pickup because of the hefty demands owners place on those vehicles. But views have begun to shift as Tesla prepares to bring a truck to market and as analysts and potential buyers have gotten a look at the R1T pickup that Rivian unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show last November – along with the R1S sport-utility vehicle.

Rivian plans to launch its R1T pickup truck and R1S sport utility in the U.S. in 2020, and begin introducing them overseas in 2021. The company has modeled both vehicles on what it calls a "skateboard" platform, which it says it flexible enough to accommodate several different vehicle body styles.

Both, at least initially, will feature 180 kilowatt-hour battery packs, almost twice the size of the largest pack currently offered by Tesla. That will be more than enough to deliver a range of 400 miles under optimal conditions, according to Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe.

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Performance will rival a Tesla Model X SUV with Ludicrous Mode, Scaringe says, claiming the two trucks will hit 60 mph in 3 seconds and 100 mph in less than 7 seconds, with a top speed of 125 mph. They will, meanwhile, be able to tow up to 11,000 pounds.

Rivian had not hidden its search for funding. While development of the two battery trucks was moving along at a fast pace, Rivian had also acquired the old Mitsubishi assembly plant in Normal, Illinois. But it was not clear whether the company had the money — or the expertise — to actually produce the two vehicles on its own.

While a source broadly hinted that more financing news could be in the works, there is also a possibility that Rivian may be lining up help on the manufacturing side.

Trucks and SUVs are also increasingly more popular with U.S. consumers than cars, and customers seem willing to pay more for them, meaning more profits for automakers. The business case for an electric pickup or SUV could be stronger than one for a sedan, given how much money companies have had to sink into electric batteries and motors and how difficult it has been for companies to make money on electric cars.

Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said in a note this week that a successful electric pickup from an upstart such as Rivian or Tesla could pose a serious threat to Detroit automakers, who depend heavily on sales of truck-based vehicles.

In a significant move, Ford Motor Co. announced this month that it is developing an electric pickup of its own. Meanwhile, Duncan Aldred, the general manager of the GMC brand at General Motors, has told CNBC it is "considering" a similar move. While he declined to offer details, Aldred pointed to comments made by GM CEO Mary Barra last March that the automaker is on a "path to an all-electric future."

It currently offers a single, long-range all-electric model, the Chevrolet Bolt EV, but plans to start rolling out as many as two dozen others, starting with a Cadillac crossover, in 2021.