NORMAL — Twin City residents won't have to wait much longer to see the vehicles now in development at their local auto plant.
Rivian Automotive, the Michigan-based electric car startup that bought the former Mitsubishi Motors North America plant in Normal, plans to publicly reveal its first vehicles this year, a major milestone on the road to bringing a five-passenger pickup truck to the market in 2020.
"We have cold-weather testing that's just wrapping up this winter of new prototype vehicles, and we'll be transitioning into pilot and validation builds late this year into next year," Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe told The Pantagraph on Friday. "We haven't announced how we're going to show them yet. We do have an idea, but we haven't announced it."
The company also is working on a seven-passenger SUV to release after the truck. Those could lead to a suite of vehicles and related products intended to bridge the gap from current cars and car ownership models to a future of self-driving cars not owned by individuals.
"We're starting with really a reimagination of what a pickup can be," Scaringe said. "Instead of being inefficient, it will be one of the most efficient vehicles on the road.
"Instead of being not fun to drive, it will be incredibly quick and capable on-road and incredibly quick and capable off-road. Instead of having no lockable storage, it has multiple storage locations within the vehicle."
Scaringe said 40 employees now work at the plant, many of them former Mitsubishi workers with intimate knowledge of its inner workings. He remains confident the workforce in Normal will reach 500 employees by 2021.
Rivian also has invested nearly $1 million in the plant, he said.
"We're making changes to the plant specific to our products, and that includes removing some of the equipment that's there, specifically in regards to the body shop. ... We're also starting to plan and execute changes to the paint shop," said Scaringe. "We continue to be impressed with the condition of the facility and how well it was maintained."
Scaringe said Rivian also hopes to announce partners who will share the plant in the next year. The company hopes to bring in other companies to manufacture at the facility, including as part of Rivian's supply chain.
Jim Thomas, Rivian's vice president of corporate development, said he's excited about the community partnerships Rivian is forging with McLean County Unit 5 schools, Heartland Community College and others.
"Local, state and federal SWAT teams have come in (to practice in the facility), and first responders have used parking lots for training," he said. "The 4-H-sponsored robotics team MetalCow is also based in our plant."
Scaringe thanked the town of Normal, McLean County and the state of Illinois for their assistance so far. The town is in line to give Rivian $1 million and is helping maintain the plant; the county helped arrange property tax abatements; and the state is in line to give Rivian $49.5 million in incentives.
All of those awards are performance-based. They all will be triggered if the company invests $40 million in the plant and hires 1,000 workers by 2024.
Scaringe said recent announcements about building up Rivian's leadership team and securing investors are big steps toward those goals.
Scaringe said it could be only a few short years before autonomous vehicles are a realistic possibility. He compared the current auto industry to the internet circa 1994: on the verge of enormous changes with no one knowing exactly what they'll look like.
"There's a host of regulatory and technical items that have to be solved, and our view is that we're gonna see those start to come to fruition in the early to mid-2020s," Scaringe said. "We want to make vehicles that rethink what the vehicle could be."