© 2022 WSIU Public Radio
WSIU Public Broadcasting
Powered by You
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Economy

Rivian superfans awaiting vehicle delivery resort to drones, stakeouts and surveillance

 Rivian mania is playing out across the country, prompting waitlisted future owners to fly drones over the factory in Illinois, flock to chatrooms on the internet and stage action videos once their electric adventure vehicles finally arrive.
Katy Lemay
/
WBEZ
Rivian mania is playing out across the country, prompting waitlisted future owners to fly drones over the factory in Illinois, flock to chatrooms on the internet and stage action videos once their electric adventure vehicles finally arrive.

For those languishing on preorder lists for the company’s coveted electric truck and SUV, obsessing online together is sweet torture.

Elizabeth and Brian Hace followed the electric vehicle upstart Rivian for years before the Minnesota couple finally placed two orders in late 2020: one for the R1T pickup truck, and the other for an R1S SUV. The Haces are environmentally conscious and also like big vehicles, so they were content to wait for Rivian to produce the country’s first electric pickup, driving 20-year-old cars rather than opting for, say, a Tesla.

That approach worked until Elizabeth’s 2002 Honda Odyssey minivan died a week ago, following the breakdown of Brian’s Chevy Malibu late last year.

“We’re early adopters. We believe in Rivian and in what they’re trying to do, so we’re willing to go through the rollercoaster of emotions,” said Elizabeth Hace. “But now we need a car.”

For the Haces and others, the Rivian rollercoaster has included multiple delays, as well as a public relations debacle in March when the company said it would hike the prices of preordered vehicles, only to backtrack a few days later after an intense reaction on fan forums and Facebook groups. Rivian, which is headquartered in Southern California but has made Normal, Ill., its center of manufacturing operations, seems mostly to have weathered that storm — Elizabeth Hace, for example, planned to cancel her order but changed her mind once the company announced it would honor its original prices.

Now, as Rivian finally ships its R1T pickups from central Illinois to long-suffering preorderers across the country, the fan frenzy has a new focus: exultation among those already behind the wheel, and envy from the tens of thousands still in line.

From drone surveillance of the Rivian factory to action videos of brand-new owners demonstrating their adventure vehicles’ off-road chops, Rivian mania is playing out across Facebook groups, Reddit posts and several fan forums dedicated exclusively to the electric vehicle maker — not to mention parking lots where Rivian owners are approached by curious passersby. This is, after all, a brand built on flourishes such as the chirp of a mountain bluebird that sounds whenever a Rivian door is unlocked, just as much as its promised 300-mile range between charges.

The Haces, who are driving their children’s cars while the kids are away at college, took their own Rivian surveillance to the next level in their quest to snag a vehicle, driving half an hour once a week to a not-yet-opened Rivian service center in suburban Minneapolis to see if there are trucks in the lot. They also started haunting internet forums for clues on when to expect delivery.

 Two Rivian R1T trucks park in Times Square in New York City on Nov. 20, 2021, the day the company’s stock started trading on the Nasdaq. The electric automaker’s IPO was one of the blockbuster debuts of 2021, despite long waits for vehicles.
Ann-Sophie Fjello-Jensen
/
Associated Press
Two Rivian R1T trucks park in Times Square in New York City on Nov. 20, 2021, the day the company’s stock started trading on the Nasdaq. The electric automaker’s IPO was one of the blockbuster debuts of 2021, despite long waits for vehicles.

They aren’t alone: As of May 9, Rivian had delivered about 5,000 R1Ts, compared with about 90,000 preorders for the R1T and R1S.

Brian Hace also agreed to change his truck’s tires in hopes of getting his truck more quickly — there’s a delay on his preferred 21-inch tire.

Hace’s tire dilemma also reflected a change in Rivian’s approach. As the company’s fanbase has swelled — and sometimes grown impatient — the manufacturer adopted a less-aloof approach. In the wake of the pricing debacle, Rivian pledged to increase its communication with customers, including transparency about delays on options such as Hace’s tires.

“If speed is your priority and you have a ton of [configuration] flexibility, then we should be having a different conversation than with someone who says ‘Look, I have been in love with my Limestone-and-Ocean Coast model for years, and I will wait for it,’ ” said Tony Caravano, senior director of customer engagement at Rivian.

Of course, that just means a million more anguished forum posts about the merits of Rivian’s Ocean Coast interior package. And then there are the photos — Rivian spy photography is fast becoming its own genre. Ground Zero is the parking lot of Rivian’s sole factory in downstate Normal, where intrepid fans have documented the existence not only of R1Ts, but also of some of the delivery trucks Rivian is building for Amazon. (Rivian is headquartered in Irvine, Cal., and just recently reached a deal to add a factory in Georgia, but for now all of the vehicles are made in Normal.)

Chicago fans, meanwhile, have been sleuthing the progress of a since-scuttled Rivian showroom in the Loop, and more recently are snapping parking-lot pics at the company’s soon-to-open service center near the United Center. Fan-forum posts take not only note the facility’s progress, but the different paint-and-interior combinations of the vehicles spotted there.

Given that the R1T appeals to a buyer who loves the idea of an powerful adventure vehicle with an optional camp kitchen and three-person tent — but who doesn’t want to trade Silicon Valley flash — it’s not surprising that service-center spycraft is well within some customers’ comfort zones. When this reporter stuck his head through an open service bay door at the Chicago service center, an employee shooed me away with a bored look that suggested he does this all day.

“Early adopters are passionate. They’re outspoken. And Rivian itself, their communication strategy has been too professional — too one-way, too blogpost-ish. They don’t get in there and converse,” says Kyle Schultz, who lives in Springfield, Ill. and runs a Rivian YouTube channel and fan site called Rivian Stories. “That means there’s a lot of unanswered questions, which opens a huge door for these communities to try and be a resource for questions and speculations and leaks.”

For Rivian fans, the company’s allure is bound up in its promise to combine ruggedness, performance, innovative design and cutting-edge tech, along with eco-friendly EV wholesomeness — an image cultivated through adventure marketing and the Apple TV+ series Long Way Up, in which a Rivian prototype-driving production crew films Ewan McGregor riding around Latin America on an electrified Harley.

While most of Rivian’s fanbase waits for actual vehicles, the company has done a brisk trade in snapback hats, tote bags and T-shirts that it sells on its website, with slogans like “Keep the world adventurous forever.”

Even the Rivian fan sites have their own merch: At Schultz’s RivianStories.com, you can pick up a T-shirt that conjures Rivian’s unique headlight design as part of the word “Soon”— a nod to the fact that the Rivian preorder crowd already has experienced plenty of adventure.

Most of the forum activity boils down to two questions: First, When do I get mine? And second, Are they as cool as they look? As customers finally receive their vehicles, the internet is suddenly alight with Rivian videos: Rivians in driveways, Rivians doing awesome off-road stuff, Rivians waiting at stoplights in the Loop. Thus far, these earliest adopters are finding little to complain about.

When an R1T showed up at the Atlanta home of Patrick McFarland, for example, it marked the first time McFarland had seen a Rivian in person after placing his order in the summer of 2019.

“I was overwhelmed.” he said.

McFarland’s a car guy. He’s owned Audis and BMWs for decades, and passed on Tesla because when he sat in a friend’s car he thought the build quality was sloppy. On the Rivian, in contrast, “the fit and finish are beyond what I would have expected in a first-run car.”

Despite the positive early reports, this is a crucial and dangerous moment for Rivian. The company has collected 90,000 preorders for its consumer vehicles, but most of those reservations required only a $1,000 deposit. For years, McFarland says his attitude was, “If it shows up, great. If not, no harm, no foul.”

Now, with R1Ts finally rolling out to buyers (the R1S SUV is coming later this year), many pre-orderers who plunked down $1,000 have to decide if they’re truly game to buy an R1T, which starts at $67,500 even without the price hike. An added wrinkle for Illinois buyers is the state’s new $4,000 EV credit, which goes into effect on July 1, causing some Rivian buyers to consider pushing back their delivery dates in order to take advantage of the credit.

All of those would-be owners are watching as their peers take delivery. That means the instant (and often online) reactions, suggestions and tutorial from new owners will help determine the company’s near-term success. So far, that flood of content is mostly positive, and the speed at which new owners are posting and their geek-out level has surprised even Caravano, leader of Rivian’s customer-engagement efforts.

“You don’t expect how deep it goes,” said Caravano, a little awestruck.

Jeff Lunglhofer, moderator of a Rivian Facebook group with 13,000 members, received his R1T in late April and quickly took to the internet both to sing its praises and to show it in action on his Virginia farm. The sting of the price — which had spurred him to temporarily cancel his order just a month prior to delivery — quickly vanished. Instead, as Lunglhofer compared the Rivian to his old truck, a Toyota Tundra, he sounded like a true believer.

 Brian and Elizabeth Hace pose, with their dog, with their newly received Rivian truck. The couple preordered the truck in 2020
Elizabeth Hace
Brian and Elizabeth Hace pose, with their dog, with their newly received Rivian truck. The couple preordered the truck in 2020

“It’s everything I expected and more. It’s really, truly — and should be, for the price tag — a luxury vehicle,” Lunglhofer says. “It doesn’t drive like a big heavy truck. It corners very well, it’s very nimble — it’s a blend between an everyday driver and a big pickup.”

Brian Hace’s truck finally arrived last Thursday while he was out of town on business, which meant he had to wait a few more agonizing days.

But this time he drew sustenance from a fresh round of hype. His wife loves the new truck.

Steve Hendershot is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Copyright 2022 WGLT. To see more, visit WGLT.

Related Stories