A lot of hopes are riding on a sporty blue car that occasionally can be seen turning laps in the parking lot of an industrial complex on the Space Coast.
28-year-old founder R.J. Scaringe says Rivian Automotive's coupe is designed to appeal to buyers who want more than appliance-like utility from an automobile. The car — two years away from production — will get more than 60 mpg and sell for less than $30,000, he says. [Photo: Jon M. Fletcher]
Even the local economic developers on the Space Coast who are rooting mightly for R.J. Scaringe to succeed acknowledge what one called a "giggle factor" in the notion that the 28-year-old engineer can start an automobile manufacturing company from scratch along the Indian River in Brevard County.
Granted, Scaringe (pronounced ska-RINJ) has a lot going for him, including a solid engineering pedigree — his father, Robert P. Scaringe, runs a successful local firm, Mainstream
Engineering, that develops and sells high-tech generators and cooling systems to the government, military and NASA, including a refrigeration system used on the International Space Station.
And granted, R.J. Scaringe has significant credentials of his own. He graduated at the top of his class from Rensselaer Polytechnic in 2005. He went on to get a master's degree and Ph.D. in automotive engineering from MIT, studying at the Sloan Automotive Laboratory, where he and lab director Wai Cheng co-authored papers with titles like "On the High Load Limit of Boosted Gasoline HCCI Engine Operating in NVO mode."
Why leave his home in England to work for a 28-year-old in Brevard County?
Also in Scaringe's favor: His ambitions, while considerable, are restrained — he's not shooting to become the next Henry Ford with a mass-market model. Instead, he's aiming more modestly for a niche that his Rivian Automotive — a combination of "Indian" and "River" — plans to fill with a slick-handling, fuel-efficient sports coupe selling somewhere between 20,000 to 30,000 units a year initially.
Scaringe has even been able to assemble a top-shelf team, including design director Peter Stevens, an affable Englishman whose credits include the Jaguar XJR-15 and the McLaren F1; Adrian Elliot, a 17-year Ford materials scientist; and CFO Jim Thomas, former COO/CFO of Mapquest.
Scaringe's first prototype even got the benefit of a once-over from a group of NASA engineers who provided feedback on the car's engineering and structural strength. And he's been cautious about releasing any information about the car — a distinction among a group of startup carmakers that so far have traded more hype than automobiles.
But a car company? That, says almost everybody who knows the car business, will take some doing — regardless whether you're trying to do it in Florida, California or Detroit.
"Generally," building cars "is a way to lose money fast," says David E. Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. Cole wasn't asked to comment specifically about Rivian but to talk in general about obstacles for automotive entrepreneurs. "Very few people understand the complexity of all the rules, the regulations, the cost pressures. It's so far beyond what most people can fathom."
Cole says Samsung hired him as a consultant a decade ago when the industrial giant decided it needed to make cars along with televisions and refrigerators if it wanted to cement its status as a true global manufacturer. Even after partnering with Nissan on a tech and manufacturing center, Samsung "failed miserably," says Cole, who advised against the move. "They had no idea. You can get into this business rich and get unrich very fast."
[Photo: Jon M. Fletcher]