New Car; Batteries Included

Auto giants be warned: electricity has levelled the playing field.

New Car; Batteries Included

Close your eyes for a moment and picture one of those huge, American-style pick-up trucks. You know the ones, I’m sure; all squared-off edges and towering grille. The ones that look like they’ll deliver all the dynamic athleticism of a toy slinky.

It shouldn’t take too much in the way of imagination, given the vehicle you’re picturing is among the world’s oldest styles of car. Trucks just like it first rumbled across the US in the 1960s, and have remained largely unchanged in the decades since. Tough? Sure. Practical? Undoubtedly. But future-facing? Not on your life.

But now picture that same looming truck somehow delivering physics-bending, Porsche-devouring acceleration—like a block of flats suddenly fired from a cannon—all while burning absolutely no fuel. Not to mention offering an interior soaked in the kind of leather-bound luxury that would put the very best premium cars to shame.

It sounds utterly impossible, doesn’t it? Like something no established carmaker would ever dream of attempting. And that’s exactly the point.

The car you’re picturing is the R1T, an all-electric pick-up truck produced by automotive newcomers Rivian; a white-hot EV startup currently taking America by storm, and striking more cold fear into the hearts of established carmakers with every passing day.

The company has already raised in the vicinity of US$1.5 billion ($2.1 billion) in investment, including US$700 million in an initial round led by Amazon. And that’s before Rivian has produced a single vehicle.

Perhaps the most telling moment came when auto giant Ford—the company responsible for the best-selling vehicle on the planet, a rival pick-up truck, and so also the one brand most at risk from upstarts like Rivian—invested an unprecedented US$500 million in the fledgling carmaker.

Rivian’s R1T electric pickup truck.

Which leads us to why. On paper, the R1T’s specifications are scarcely believable. Powered by a quad-motor system that delivers 147kW to each wheel, and a staggering 14,000Nm in total torque, Rivian says its US$69,000 truck will be able to clip 100km/h in just 3 seconds, and will then push on to 160km/h in just 7 seconds.

Those numbers would be impressive in a full fledged supercar, let alone a truck. But Rivian isn’t done yet.

“We have also really focused on the off-road capability of these vehicles. We have 14 inches of dynamic ground clearance, we have a structural underbody, and we have all-time all-wheel drive so we can go up 45-degree inclines,” Rivian’s chief engineer, Brian Gase, tells us.

“It can also tow 10,000 pounds (4.5 tonnes). I’ve got 400 miles (643km) of range. I can do anything another off-road vehicle can do, and then some.

“I want someone who is 10 years old to have this poster on his wall in the same way I had a poster of a Lamborghini when I was a kid.”

Rivian might be the most well-funded newcomer that’s arrived to tackle the heavyweights of the automotive world, but it’s not the only one. In fact, a host of new visionaries have begun popping up almost everywhere, readying to launch an electric charge at an auto industry ripe for disruption.

And it’s mostly because they can finally afford to.

At the risk of pointing out the wallet-bleedingly obvious, cars are expensive. Sure, that will likely come as no surprise to anyone who has ever handed over the small mountain of cash required to secure a slice of automotive freedom in Singapore. But we’re not talking about buying them.

No, we’re talking about building them; the staggering amount of money that is sunk into the development of every single new vehicle, from cheap and cheerful hatchbacks to sleek and stylish super cars.

American auto analyst IHS estimates that taking an all-new vehicle from a sketch in a notepad to a dealership near you can cost as much as US$6 billion. An investment that is paid back to the manufacturer in a piecemeal fashion, the money returned bit by bit over the long life of the car.

The point is, you needed ocean-deep pockets to play the automotive game, and so the world’s traditional carmakers have been protected by a kind of forcefield of cash that prevents newcomers from mounting any kind of proper attack.

At least, they were.

Electricity, or more accurately, batteries, have suddenly levelled the playing field. Now, a newcomer can buy battery cells from a third-party supplier, build a car around it, and put it on the market with a significantly lower outlay. No engine. No complicated transmission. Just an electric motor housed at the driving wheels and a big bank of batteries to supply the power.

The batteries are still the single biggest expense when it comes to building an electric vehicle, but they are getting cheaper all the time. “Lithium-ion battery costs have already dropped by 65 percent since 2010. We expect EV battery costs…to fall even further as new chemistries come in,” says Bloomberg analyst Colin McKerracher.

And this abundance of cheap power has inspired game-changing EV startups to take advantage. Tesla is both the most well-known and most successful. But there are many more waiting in the wings.

Take Byton, for example, another well-funded EV player founded by former BMW and Nissan executives. It is already making plenty of noise, taking some 40,000 reservations for its first production model, with around half of those from customers in America and Europe.

Byton sees the traditional dashboard as old news, and so has replaced it almost entirely with a huge digital screen that stretches the width of its M-Byte concept car, which is expected to go on sale towards the end of this year. And if that’s not enough technology for you, M-Byte also has four more screens: a tablet in the steering wheel, an 8-inch screen in the centre of the car, and two more screens mounted in the back of each headrest facing backseat passengers.

The idea, the company says, is to provide a mobile office for passengers once autonomous technology is advanced enough to take over the driving duties.

“What we are trying to offer is not just another electric car model, but a smart device,” says Daniel Kirchert, Byton’s president. “So far, most models designed by Chinese electric startups are closer to Tesla’s solution in terms of a centre control touch screen, but we have leapt further, by taking into full account a self-driving era.”

Or NIO, a Chinese startup founded in 2014 that doesn’t just want to revolutionise your electric car, but the way you recharge them.

It’s no secret that one of the drawbacks of electric motoring is the time it takes to recharge your vehicle. The solution, says NIO, is to set up battery swap stations that you simply pull into when you’re running low on charge, where a robot will change your flat battery for a fully charged one, and then send you on your way in less time than it would take to fill a petrol tank.

NIO, Byton and Rivian—and dozens of others—are all competing for a huge prize. There were more than two million electric vehicles sold around the world in 2018, and Bloomberg predicts the number to climb to 10 million by 2025, and to 56 million by 2040. That’s a lot of customers. But one thing is certain: for the very first time, it won’t just be the traditional car companies in the box seat to meet that demand.

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