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Breakups are tough — even amicable ones. But a reassessment usually lays bare the issues that inform the future. So it’s worth wondering about the relationship between the century-old Ford Motor Co. and recently-floated electric vehicle company Rivian Automotive Inc.

It was meant to work — on paper. A large, traditional manufacturer ties up with a new startup that boasts all the right technology and specs, to make an electric version of an American favorite — the SUV. They looked like the perfect couple. This month, though, the companies abandoned plans to jointly develop an EV.

It’s a shame. Investors loved it. For Ford, it was a big, bold bet on the future at a time when it didn’t know much better and skittishness around the incessant rise of EV-maker Tesla Inc. made traditional carmakers splash out. They took big stakes in various futuristic technologies or forged partnerships that aligned them with the next-generation of vehicles and the technology that would power them. For Rivian, a hot startup with all the ideas à la mode around sustainability and greener vehicles, the partnership with a manufacturing giant would ensure that production issues didn’t impede its rise.

Rivian went public on Nov. 10 in one of the biggest offerings ever. The value of Ford’s stake stands at around $12 billion. Just 10 days later, they called off jointly making an electric vehicle — mutually, they say. Ford still holds its 12%. Both companies seem to have come out fine, in theory. A subsidiary of the Detroit giant has a supply agreement with the EV-maker.

But the making-a-car bit was the premise of the relationship. So what about those lofty goals set at the time of the initial investment led to it falling apart? In April 2019, after the announcement, when Ford’s then-Chief Executive Officer James Hackett was asked by an analyst how much his company thought it could save from its partnership versus “the $1 billion to $2 billion needed to bring a new vehicle to market," he said: “We see significant opportunity" in terms of cost and speed to market, noting that the latter was important. 

He went on to say that the skateboard platform, Rivian’s chassis that packages together the systems, motor, batteries and other controls, had a lot of capability they could leverage. Rivian founder R.J. Scaringe noted that just as important as its 100,000 electric van-Amazon.com Inc. relationship was bringing in a partner “that has manufacturing expertise, supply chain expertise and the ability to actually use our skateboard." They didn’t get into details but investors liked the idea.

Just over two years later, the reality couldn’t be further from those optimistic statements. Ford is coming out with its own vehicles, as is Rivian, while it scouts out manufacturing plants in Georgia.

Perhaps they just couldn’t see eye-to-eye on technology and manufacturing, and never would — their foundations are so different. Within a year of the tie-up, in early April 2020, Ford’s luxury brand Lincoln Motors canceled plans to make an all new EV on Rivian’s platform. It maintained the partnership was still strong, noting that they were working on “an alternative vehicle."

In the rush to pair up and give investors some hope in a cloak-and-dagger string of events, the Ford and Rivian decision, in retrospect, looks like it was just aesthetically pleasing. By the time Ford put in the half-million dollars, Rivian had already raised over $1.5 billion and was valued at close to $7 billion.

In a way, it’s a sign of how both companies underestimated themselves — perhaps we’re still in for all sorts of great electric trucks and SUVs? Ford’s current CEO Jim Farley said this month his firm plans to double its EV production capacity. But the reality is, we’ll need to start seeing more of them first. In addition, there has to be further discussion and disclosure around what didn’t work for the two parties — because it sounded like it should have been straightforward. That would do the vibrant electric vehicle conversation a big favor.

Many EV manufacturers are contracting out production and have often struggled to get it up and running (including Tesla in the early days). What issues are they running into? Is this a tech — hardware or software — issue or just philosophical? What seems like a good, synergistic partnership or tie-up may need a more considered look.

For investors, that’s a warning, especially as the rush to go electric and a slew of new technologies mushroom across the electric vehicle value chain. A former Ford executive once told Rivian’s Scaringe, “Just because you got engaged to someone doesn’t mean you need to marry them." In fact, you don’t even have to. That’s worth bearing in mind.


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