Of all the non-Tesla electric vehicle startups that have emerged over the past decade, few have garnered as much attention — or burned through as much investor cash — as Rivian, a maker of high-performance EV trucks.
The demand for Rivians is such that the waitlist has been insane. As noted in September by FindMyElectric.com, a website for buying and selling used electric vehicles, production last year was just under 25,000 vehicles — and there were still over 100,000 reservations for the expensive off-roaders, with the R1T truck starting at $73,000 and the R1S SUV starting at $78,000.
Nevertheless, 24-year-old Chase Merrill had enough in the bank to put a deposit down on an R1S three years ago, according to Insider. While Merrill was skeptical about making the switch to an EV, given the fact he lives in an isolated area of New York’s Adirondack Mountains, family members who own EVs urged him to make the change.
He finally got the vehicle March 10, after a three year-wait, according to Insider. Three days later, the SUV became an electric brick — with a non-functioning motor and wheels that wouldn’t turn. And he was stuck with a $2,100 repair bill.
According to Insider’s report, Merrill was initially thrilled with his R1S, specced out to $85,626.
“I was in a honeymoon phase,” Merrill told Insider. “It’s an incredible car, and it handles unlike anything I’ve ever driven.”
Until, um, he tried to take a vehicle advertised as fully capable of handling adverse road and trail conditions into adverse road and trail conditions.
Merrill had driven the R1S to his family’s place in the Adirondacks and decided to drive it on an unplowed, snow-covered road to the property. When he hit a snow drift, the R1S proved it was hardly up to the task.
“I hit about 2 ½-feet of snow and it just stopped right there,” Merrill told Insider. “I had seen all the Rivian marketing campaigns with the cars just eating through the snow so it was kind of like, ‘man this is disappointing.’”
OK, fine: Even the most capable of off-roaders can be thwarted by something a carmaker assures customers it can tackle. Merrill’s problems were just beginning, however.
As someone who lives in a remote area of the Adirondacks, Merrill told Insider he’s been able to get cars out of snow banks before. He was able to get another motorist to help pull him out. This should have gone smoothly.
Anyone who’s been in this situation before knows what you do, even if you’re just in a Volkswagen Golf. As you’re being pulled out, you sit in the driver’s seat, rocking the car back and forth, trying to get some traction. Merrill wasn’t buckled in at the time, nor did he need to be: He wasn’t exactly at risk for a high-speed collision stuck in a snow bank, after all.
However, this combination of factors triggered one of the R1S’ “safety features” — which bricked it, getting the SUV stuck between the neutral and drive gears, Insider reported. It was as useless as a stolen iPhone after the theft has been reported.
So, the R1S — instead of getting towed out of the snow drift and back on the road — was pulled out of the snowdrift and put onto a flatbed to be driven to a service center in Massachusetts, hundreds of miles away.
The cost of that? A cool $2,100.
What’s worse? According to Insider:
“Merrill said he later learned that a simple reset may have resolved the issue that bricked his car, without requiring a service visit. But that solution did not come up in his initial call with Rivian’s customer service, he said.
“A Rivian representative ultimately called to apologize to Merrill and offered to pay for the repairs, but the company refused to pay the $2,100 transportation fee, he said. After Insider called Rivian this week to ask about Merrill’s experience, a Rivian representative called Merrill and offered to cover the $2,100 bill.”
To add insult to $2,100 injury, when the R1S was returned to Merrill, the SUV showed a critical error message on the dash, telling him he needed to return to the service center.
“The attitude the whole time from customer service was that a Rivian owner should be able to handle this, no problem,” Merrill told Insider. “They just think this should be nothing for me and it’s not nothing.”
And yet, he was still a champion of the Rivian — just that maybe it wasn’t for him.
“The car is super impressive and I want the company to do well,” Merrill told Insider. “I think I’m just not the right person to be an early adopter.”
Instead, he now says he’s looking at a trade for an internal-combustion truck, like the Toyota Tacoma.
Rivian tried to spin this as a learning experience. According to one executive who commented to Insider, this is exactly what the R1S is supposed to do if it’s sliding away uncontrollably. Except Merril’s vehicle wasn’t doing that.
“There was an unfortunate cascade of events and edge cases that led to this situation,” Wassym Bensaid, Rivian’s senior vice president of software development, told Insider.
“But we take this feedback as a gift. It’s great input for us to improve the product.”
Tony Caravano, the company’s head of customer engagement, managed to somehow be even more patronizing.
“There’s nuance to that ownership experience that we have to make sure that they understand,” Caravano told Insider.
“One of the great learnings here is for us to be even more even more communicative about key parts and key elements of the ownership experience when we know that customers live in more remote areas.”
Well, here’s the story in a nutshell:
A poorly programmed software protection feature in an expensive EV bricked it. A customer service representative didn’t identify that a software reset might have resolved it.
It resulted in a $2,100 towing bill that the company responsible for the programming fault didn’t want to pay until a major publication got wind of the story. And the takeaway from the manufacturer is that EV early adopters need to understand the “nuance” involved in the “ownership experience.”
Hear that, ye 100,000 Rivian waitlisters? This is the treatment your patience and your considerable investment could get you.
Bricking is a not-uncommon problem with electric vehicles, something that’s dated from an issue with the Tesla Roadster, the EV giant’s first car — a problem dismissed as a “scare” by an EV-protective Green Car Reports article in 2012.
However, “bricking” has been a problem with EVs ever since — particularly in situations that require the vehicle to be put into neutral.
Regarding a similar issue with a Tesla that locked up on the side of the highway, a writer at the auto-centric website Jalopnik noted this in a 2021 article: “Every EV has some way to get the car into neutral, but based on the research I’ve done so far, all of the major EVs sold require the car to be at least partially functional to access the controls to get it into a tow or free-rolling mode, as these are usually accessed through the cars’ center-stack touch screen.”
It’s all enough to make one almost nostalgic for the Yugo. Sure, those broke down in three days, too. But they cost $4,000 new, and at least you could put them in neutral and have them towed to the nearest auto shop — which, I guarantee you, wouldn’t be in another state.
Reporting from The Western Journal.