Why Sell Big Trucks If There Is a Battery Shortage?

The CEO of Rivian is complaining but this is a design problem and he is part of it.

Rivian in mud


I complained about the Rivian pickup truck when it was first announced in 2018. I had to write another post addressing all the criticism and abuse I received from people who perhaps didn't understand what I was trying to say. I noted in my rebuttal:

  1. Fuel economy matters—even in an electric vehicle
  2. Embodied energy matters
  3. Size matters: These trucks are fundamentally dangerous
  4. Weight matters

The reason size and weight matter is because you need bigger batteries to move a big truck, which mean more embodied energy and more electricity consumption.

So, here we are in 2022: The Rivian is in early and limited production, and Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe is complaining in The Wall Street Journal that he can't get enough batteries. “Put very sim­ply, all the world’s cell pro­duc­tion com­bined rep­re­sents well un­der 10% of what we will need in 10 years,” Scaringe told the Journal. “Mean­ing, 90% to 95% of the sup­ply chain does not ex­ist.”

Sean McLain and Scott Patterson of the Journal write:

"Mr. Scaringe put a sharper point on the problems for the auto industry ahead, saying building enough batteries will be among the biggest hurdles in trying to boost electric-vehicle sales from a few million today to tens of millions within the decade. The shortages will occur everywhere from the mining of raw materials to processing them, to building the battery cells themselves."

All of this brings us back to the question we have been asking since the Rivian was launched: Why did they design a truck that needs a 135-kilowatt-hour battery pack? Rivian already announced the delay of its originally promised 180-kilowatt-hour pack that would push it 400 miles because of battery shortages.

And it is not just Rivian that is struggling for batteries. The Journal reports:

"Some companies, such as GM, are joining with mining firms to secure access to critical ingredients such as cobalt and lithium. Others are bringing more of their battery-cell production in-house, aiming to have more control over this core component for electric vehicles. Still, even with all the planned battery production expected to be added, less than half of the forthcoming factories will produce cells with sufficient quality to supply global car companies such as GM, Toyota Motor Corp., and startups such as Rivian."

In the meantime, to cope with the supply problems, everyone is raising prices. Rivian actually had a buyer revolt and had to back down with its price increase.

Some experts, like Michael Liebrich of BloombergNEF, suggest there is nothing to worry about, that "there is no supply challenge that investment and innovation can't solve," as shown in the tweet above. Liebrich is probably right. It is also true that batteries are getting better, with greater power densities and less difficult materials like cobalt.

But still, the Rivian battery is over three times the size of the 40kWh one in a newer Nissan Leaf. The electric car revolution would happen faster with smaller, more affordable vehicles that used half the batteries to go the same distance.

I always say that everything is a design problem—and this certainly is. Everyone is going after the pickup truck market because pickup trucks have been the hot sector. After all, as one of the first commenters asked in the earlier Rivian post, "Have you ever tried hauling hay in a Prius?" Everyone is clearly hauling hay these days.

Chevrolet El Camino
Please, give us an electric El Camino. Pictured here is a 1967 Chevrolet El Camino ad.


Rivian started with a clean slate and could have found a balance. It could have been an electric El Camino or a Subaru BRAT. Instead, the company designed a three-ton pickup truck that needs giant batteries.

Scaringe made this truck bed and he is going to have to lie in it.

View Article Sources
  1. McLain, Sean, and Scott Patterson. "Rivian CEO Warns of Looming Electric-Vehicle Battery Shortage." Wall Street Journal, 18 Apr. 2022.