March 30, 2022 6:21 AM EDT

There is a decent chance Rivian delivers on the enormous expectations it faces. Or it might not. The California automotive startup, which aspires to be the Patagonia of electric vehicles (EVs)—rugged, hip, simpatico to consumers willing to pay a premium to buy from a company that emits a halo of eco-friendliness—is at a critical juncture.

The person trying to make it all work is lifelong car geek Robert “RJ” Scaringe, who spent much of his childhood tinkering on cars in a neighbor’s garage. “I had hoods under my bed, windshields in my closet, and engine parts on my desk,” he says. His vision of stylish electric pickup trucks, SUVs, and commercial delivery vans has attracted over 180,000 orders and heavyweight backers including Amazon and Ford. Scaringe, a 39-year-old with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is now leading Rivian’s “ramp up,” the make-it-or-break-it phase where the company has to prove it can produce a steady stream of vehicles from its assembly lines in Normal, Ill., and eventually a newly announced factory near Atlanta.

Rivian spent the winter trying to tame a litany of challenges facing many manufacturers right now: supply-chain shortages, COVID-19 outbreaks shutting down its plant (nearly a quarter of its workers were out in January), and even the weather (it lost critical production days to epic snowstorms). Add to that the general market jitters, and Rivian’s valuation has dropped to roughly $40 billion as of late March from its gravity-defying $153 billion following its November IPO. (That offering, one of the biggest of 2021, made Scaringe’s stake worth well over $1 billion, although the value of his holdings has fallen in recent months.)

Despite the taxing past six months—and the fact that so far, only a thousand or so Rivian vehicles are rolling on public roads—there is little doubt that Rivian has been hugely influential in pushing the auto industry to adopt a more widespread embrace of EVs. To date, the most popular EVs have largely been sedans and crossovers from Tesla, General Motors, and others. But Americans love big cars; the top three selling vehicles in the U.S. last year were all pickups. That Rivian has racked up 83,000 preorders for its R1T pickup even before it proves it can build them en masse has accelerated mainstream automakers’ push to electrify their best-selling behemoths, with Ford and GM both racing to get electrified versions of their pickups to market. (At one point, Rivian lent Ford a prototype of an electric pickup its team made using Rivian’s electrified platform with an F-150 body. The jerry-built vehicle’s performance helped convince Ford of EV pickups’ potential.)

Rivian has all the components of a buzzy tech startup: a lofty mission statement (“Keep the world adventurous forever”) that captures its world-saving mission to create a carbon-neutral transportation business, a big valuation, and a big piggy bank, with more than $18 billion in cash. But it also posts big losses ($4.7 billion last year), and it does not expect to be profitable in the “foreseeable future,” according to its prospectus. Moreover, with great valuation comes great scrutiny, particularly if you are entering the same lane as Tesla CEO and outspoken social media presence Elon Musk. “Don’t want to be unreasonable, but maybe they should be required to deliver at least one vehicle per billion dollars of valuation *before* the IPO?” Musk tweeted last August.

A weekly newsletter featuring conversations with the world’s top CEOs, managers, and founders. Join the Leadership Brief

Rivian’s growing pains exceed Muskian snark. Of greater import, Ford has decided to proceed as a full-blown competitor to Rivian rather than as a production partner, as it once contemplated. Ford is a formidable player in Rivian’s main business lines, with 200,000 pre-orders for its F-150 Lightning, the newly unveiled electric version of what’s long been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. And in a splashy video introducing Ford’s electrified Transit van, CEO Jim Farley took a not-so-veiled shot at Rivian, highlighting Ford’s extensive manufacturing experience and its large service network: “If things go wrong, we have your back because we have 1,800 commercial vehicle centers in the U.S. and transit centers scattered all over Europe. Newcomers in the space won’t be able to deliver that kind of support until, well, maybe ever.” Still, the two CEOs have a regular check-in.

Ford declined to comment on its relationship with Rivian. But when the companies abandoned their joint development plan last year, Farley told Automotive News, “We have growing confidence in our ability to win in the electric space. When you compare today with when we originally made that investment, so much has changed.” For his part, Scaringe is frustrated with the media’s portrayal of the EV world as a zero-sum game and rejects the narrative that “Rivian can only be successful if Ford is unsuccessful.” He says that the world needs to produce 1 billion new EVs in the next 10 to 15 years as a matter of climate urgency. “There is no way one company could produce all those vehicles,” he says.

Read more: Everything to Know About Rivian, the Next Electric Vehicle Darling

Scaringe is now trying to make it all work under the gaze of one of the corporate world’s most exacting partners: Amazon, which has both invested in Rivian and ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from the company. (In its most recent earnings report, Amazon included a pretax gain of $11.8 billion from its Rivian stake.) Last year, Amazon executive chairman Jeff Bezos tweeted that Scaringe is “One of the greatest entrepreneurs I’ve ever met,” but then added, “Now, RJ, where are our vans?!”

Scaringe laughs when asked about the pressure from his bald booster. “He’s a funny guy,” says Scaringe, in his trademark low-key, almost placid, manner. “He has a sense of humor.” Bezos declined to comment, but seems to be a genuine Rivian fanboy—Scaringe says Bezos recently sent him a note ordering more Rivian pickups for his own use. “We’ve done some off-roading together. He really enjoys the capability.”

Rivian executives freely admit that they are in a decisive moment. In March, the company disclosed that it has produced only 1,410 vehicles in 2022 and 2,425 vehicles since the start of production last year. Scaringe revealed new details to TIME about the extent to which Rivian is going to get production on track. The most surprising: it has been sending teams to suppliers to help them address problems. Rivian’s pickup, says Scaringe, consists of over 2,000 components from over 400 suppliers. “If you’re missing a single fastener, it can stop the line. If we are waiting for a part, we will do whatever we can to help,” he says. “It’s common for us to send some of our teams to act as a SWAT team. There were some times where there were pretty meaningful numbers of people who would go to a supplier.”

But Rivian’s latest stumble was over its own feet. In early March, the company informed its customers—many of whom have been waiting three years for their vehicle—that prices were rising by as much as 20%, putting the cost of some pickup configurations near $100,000. A flurry of cancellations followed, and the company quickly backpedaled and said the price increases would apply only to new orders. But the misstep knocked billions off Rivian’s market cap and underscored the company’s growing pains.

Scaringe, a father of three, is most animated when describing his kids’ reactions to his trucks’ most unusual features (among many: a bird-chirping sound effect when you lock the doors, recorded in Yosemite National Park; a drain at the bottom of the spare-tire space, so you can fill it with ice and beverages.) One of Scaringe’s kids favors the “gear tunnel,” a storage area good for skis, fishing poles—or crawling through, if you are small enough. Another is enamored of the flashlight that pops out of the door like a James Bond gadget. Scaringe excitedly holds up a matchbox-style toy Rivian he had just received. He’s eager to bring it home.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com.

EDIT POST