The company seems to think that cars will become a luxury
Rivian is now the biggest carmaker you’ve never heard of. The 12-year-old startup, which makes electric pickup vehicles, went public last week with an initial expected price of $78 per share — only for trading to start at $137 per share: 37% higher. A week later, Rivian’s share price opened at $159, making the company now — at least on paper — the third biggest carmaker in the world.
The catch: Rivian has yet to earn a single dollar in revenue. Its first deliveries were only made a couple of months ago to Rivian employees. But prominent backers include Amazon, which invested $700 million in Rivian in 2019, and also Ford, who invested a further $500m in 2019.
Is this just another example of investment mania in a hyper-inflated paper company, like the ‘WeWork’ shared office startup? That was once hailed as ‘our next Alibaba’ by key investor Softbank, before imploding amid rumours of nepotism, drug-taking and sexism. Perhaps.
But perhaps it’s also a sign of deeper shifts in the way we all live in the 21st century.
To a far greater extent than many in the ‘green’ lobby want to admit, it was fossil fuels that powered the egalitarian twentieth-century age of mass bourgeois prosperity. That age is above all symbolised by the car. In 1928, the Republican Party published perhaps the quintessential expression of that vision, boasting of more homebuilding, more production, better wages, ‘a chicken for every pot’ and ‘a car in every backyard’.
Meanwhile, even as politicians wrapped up their COP26 horse-trading, many of the keenest and greenest hold tight to their faith that climate mitigation measures will be compatible with that democratic dream of mass mobility and prosperity.
Rivian’s order book suggests otherwise. Though it initially promised to focus on electric pickup trucks — a quintessential symbol of rugged American independence, updated for the 21st century — it’s shifted its priorities. Instead of producing pickups, Rivian will now focus on the order Amazon has placed, for 100,000 electric-only delivery vans.
Reading between the lines, this tells us a great deal about our green future. And it doesn’t look like that 1928 advert.
Rather, Jeff Bezos has looked ahead and seen a world where private vehicles are beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen. (We can forget the chicken in every pot, too: the UN is also telling us to eat less meat to save the planet.)
And a world where private vehicles are expensive is one in which we don’t go to the shops. Instead, we’ll all minimise our carbon footprints by staying put, while Amazon workers bring us things in a Rivian electric van. It is, perhaps, what infrastructure looks like in the neo-feudal social order already established in California.
I don’t see a liveable long-term alternative to ditching fossil fuels. But we’ve barely begun to grasp the impact de-carbonising will have on ordinary lives.