Before his battery behemoths, Rivian’s billionaire founder made an eco sports car
(Flashback: May, 2010. Ke$ha’s song “Tik Tok” is blasting on every pop radio station in America. Iron Man 2 is the top movie. Betty White is hosting Saturday Night Live. And I am interviewing R.J. Scaringe, who you may have heard of, because he’s now the billionaire founder of Rivian Automotive, builder of the R1T electric pickup, the R1S sport utility vehicle, and more than a thousand electric delivery vans for Amazon. Twelve and a half years ago, however, the company that is now Rivian had set its sights on building something smaller, lighter, and sportier. And the entirely unknown Scaringe was spending more time looking for money than he was engineering. Here’s the interview. It took place in Scaringe’s office in Rockledge, Florida, a bedroom community for NASA workers. Any updates are in parenthesis.)
R .J. Scaringe has spent months declining to discuss his new automotive company, Avera Motors. Now that it’s finally time to talk, he can barely stop. But the 27-year-old does not want Avera to be one of those new car companies that throws a big news conference, shows a sketch of a new vehicle, announces grand plans for a factory and marketing, begs for money, then vanishes from existence.
Scaringe says he declines to make promises he can’t keep.
That you haven’t heard of Avera—a blend of “America,” and “verde,” as in green, and “terra,” meaning earth—likely leads you to think that the company isn’t that far along with plans to build a new sports coupe in Central Florida.
You might be wrong. Scaringe, president and chief executive officer of Avera, has quietly hired about 15 engineers who have worked for companies such as Chrysler, Mitsubishi, Mercedes-Benz, and Roush. They have already designed the car’s exterior, interior, suspension, and powertrain, and they have a full-sized clay model of the car in the studio—which I was allowed to see but not photograph. It looks sort of like a new Mitsubishi Eclipse, but smaller.
Scaringe says the car will be fun to drive, carry four people, and according to the company’s fledgling website, get twice the mileage of today’s hybrids. That’s the only claim I heard during my visit to the company that I question because double a Toyota Prius would be close to 100 miles per gallon. (And yes, Scaringe told me that was not out of the question.)
The Avera will likely be a diesel hybrid. The car will be mid-engined—meaning the engine is right behind the rear seat —and rear-wheel-drive. This setup is regarded as the optimum drivetrain configuration for performance and handling by companies such as Ferrari and Lamborghini. The basic platform would be “flexible,” Scaringe says, meaning that once the Avera sports coupe is under way, the platform could support, say, a two-seat convertible, a small SUV, or any number of vehicles.
Price? Around $25,000.
It is not lost on anyone in the automotive business, much less Scaringe, that the industry has not been kind to those looking to outdo the major car companies. Malcolm Bricklin, John DeLorean, Preston Tucker and a long list of entrepreneurs would confirm that. So why should we take Scaringe seriously?
There are several reasons, perhaps the central one being that he is the son of Robert P. Scaringe, who founded Mainstream Engineering in Rockledge in 1986, on an eight-acre campus with 110 employees. Mainstream is a pioneer in the development and manufacturing of thermal control and energy conversion products.
From Mainstream’s press materials: “Mainstream designed and built the lightest diesel generator in the world, a vapor compression refrigeration system that is onboard the International Space Station, and the world’s first magnetic-bearing centrifugal compressor chiller.” Both father and son have a PhD in engineering, with R.J.’s from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Presently, Avera Motors is in one of the nondescript buildings on Mainstream’s property. By the end of the year, Scaringe hope to have a running prototype of the car. By 2011, the Avera will likely be displayed at national auto shows. By 2012, Scaringe says we could see Averas on the road.
And, he says, he’d like to build them in Florida. Several legislators on the Space Coast have high hopes that the Avera factory, which could employ more than 1000, could be built there, likely seeing it as a partial solution to the jobs NASA is shedding. But other states such as Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee are used to throwing millions in cash and considerations to attract auto factories, and Florida must step up if it wants to keep the Avera.
What leads R. J. Scaringe to think he can succeed where others have failed?
“The most critical aspect is putting together the right team,” he says. “The right business model is important, but the right team is also extremely important.” And with the cutbacks in the auto industry, “There’s never been a better time to go out and find the best team possible. We’re not going for a particularly high-end super car, we’re going for a part of the market that we feel is very strong,” he said. “So as long as we can execute—and having the right team will allow us to do that—I think we’ll be successful.”
Seven months later, December of 2010, in a decorated but still grim warehouse at Mainstream.
The side door to the warehouse opened and a little blue hatchback drove in, then out onto the floor, past 80-odd applauding dignitaries who may have witnessed the start of the Sunshine State’s automotive industry. Until then, few outside a company called Avera Motors had seen the actual prototype of a sporty, fuel-sipping vehicle that company president and chief executive officer, R.J. Scaringe, suggests just might revolutionize the auto world.
The four-seat, rear-wheel-drive car is expected to get more than 60 miles per gallon, even though it has a conventional gasoline engine. That model would debut as early as 2012. Not far behind, perhaps in two years, another powertrain using a diesel engine and plug-in hybrid technology could top 80 mpg.
The people invited to the presentation were a mixture of politicians, financiers, engineers, and space industry executives, including Space Florida president Frank DiBello, whose state-sponsored organization has offered support to Avera. Scaringe was hoping to build the Avera somewhere near the Space Coast, employing many of the skilled workers displaced by the cutbacks in the space program. All told, he said, Avera Motors could provide upwards of 1200 jobs.
And the little blue hatchback with charcoal lower body cladding — no photos allowed for competitive reasons — is the first tangible proof it could happen. “I love it,” said Florida State Sen. Thad Altman, R- Melbourne. “We can’t underestimate what this could mean to our economy.” (Altman is now a Florida state representative. His office did not return multiple phone calls. And we didn’t know at the time that the blue hatchback was in some part a rebodied Mini Cooper underneath, because Scaringe needed a car to show the investors, both current and future, that he really could design and build a vehicle that would move under its own power, which was supplied by Mini.)
Altman said that Florida has the qualified work force for Avera, and Scaringe has roots here. Avera is located on the campus of Mainstream Engineering, founded by his father, Robert P. Scaringe, in 1986. Mainstream has done a lot of work for the space industry, specializing in thermal control and energy conversion products. So far, Avera has been financed by private investors.
There were challenges for the young company, including one that was unexpected: Hyundai filed suit against Avera because the Korean manufacturer builds a car called the Azera. Hyundai thought Avera “is too close to Azera,” said Hyundai’s then-director of public relations, Chris Hosford. Avera has agreed to change the name of the company, Scaringe says, but Hosford claims the company isn’t moving fast enough. “If you were changing the name of your company,” Hosford said, “wouldn’t you want to do it sooner, rather than later?”
Scaringe said Avera’s attorneys are being extra careful, and that may mean no name change until early next year. And there is no point, he says, in releasing photos of the car until it has a name that will stick. (Rivian, the name Scaringe ultimately settled on, was inspired by an Indian River lagoon near his childhood home.)
The name change may not have been a bad thing. Aside from the Hyundai Azera, there’s an electric car called the Aptera, made in California. The three vehicles could conceivably become confused. (As of 2022, Avera is dead, the Azera was killed off in 2017, and Aptera Motors was liquidated in 2011 before making a comeback in 2019.)
So what does the Avera look like? It doesn’t copy anything on the road, but it most resembles the new Honda CR-Z hybrid, which resembles the old Honda CRX two-seater. In fact, that old CRX may have been something of an inspiration for Scaringe because 25 years earlier, the 1985 Honda CRX HF model was EPA-rated at an overall 51 mpg, using, in part, lightweight components.
And that is one element of the Avera, Scaringe said. The car’s aluminum frame is light enough for two people to pick up, and looks more like a race car chassis than a street car.
Scaringe admits heavy influence from the British firm, Lotus, where the late founder, Colin Chapman, pioneered lightweight vehicles able to perform like much more powerful, but much heavier, cars. Scaringe, in fact, drives an orange Lotus Elise that weighs 2055 pounds. (Ironic that the vehicles he builds now weight three-and-a-half tons.)
Otherwise, Avera executives and engineers — some recruited from Detroit-based automakers—were tight-lipped about additional details of the car. Scaringe said he wasn’t concerned that comparatively low gas prices ($2.95 a gallon in December, 2010) are resulting n big discounts in high-mileage vehicles right now, including hybrids. “We won’t need $4-a-gallon gasoline,” he said. “Because our car will be fun to drive, and that will be a big part of the appeal.”
Altman hopes so. “I think,” he said, “there’s a good chance we’ve seen the future here tonight.”
We had indeed seen it, or at least a version of it. In the end, the future that came wasn’t what we were sold that night in 2010. “Sold” being the operative word: The Florida Energy and Climate Commission committed $2 million to the project, and Space Florida was in for several million more. But the early Rivian struggled for several years until Scaringe found some new investors from Saudi Arabia, and he promptly left Florida in his rearview mirror. When the Illinois-built Rivian truck and SUV were introduced at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November of 2018, they were the belle of the ball. Scaringe spoke briefly at the product reveal, then he agreed to a short interview. He said that he regretted having to leave Florida, “but the infrastructure just wasn’t there.” After our interview, Scaringe reportedly suggested that his public relations executive might “scrub” the internet of stories like mine from the old days. He was informed that would be, well, difficult. Today, Rivian is valued at $30 billion, and he could probably buy the internet.)
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