EV Startups Rivian and Xos Highlight Uncertainty in a Volatile World
Courtesy of Xos and Rivian

EV Startups Rivian and Xos Highlight Uncertainty in a Volatile World

The world of electric vehicle startups remains a rollercoaster of uncertainty. This week, we saw news from two of Southern California’s biggest names in the space with radically different announcements.

Let's start with the good: At Rivian, a tweet from CEO RJ Scaringe suggested that the company was back on pace to hit its production targets of 25,000 vehicles this year.

So what do I feel when I see a tweet like this?

A cautious optimism? Yes, but wrapped in a skepticism that the company has been wrong so many times before. This is a company that has historically failed to hit targets. Earlier this year supply chain and inflationary woes forced the company to raise prices on several of its vehicles earlier this year, which led to a shareholder lawsuit, some eventual backtracking, an apology, a stock slide, etc. They very well may turn the corner, and this news (among other things) is encouraging, but call me when that 25,000th car rolls off the line.

On the other side of town, electric trucking company, Xos, announced that it would lay off 8% of its staff according to reporting from Business Insider. This is a company that went public via SPAC merger on August 20, 2021 in a deal valued at $2 billion and has subsequently seen its stock lose nearly 80% of its value. According to the report, yesterday’s bad news is attributable to a cash shortage and “slowing macroeconomic growth.” It’s a common refrain for many startups across the nation: Inflation prompts the Fed to raise interest rates; investors get skittish; suddenly VC cash is hard to come by and profitability becomes more attractive than growth at all costs.

The whole EV space is an absolute rollercoaster, but it’s a roller coaster where you’re blindfolded and half the track may or may not exist in front of you. One minute you’re building momentum and the next minute your supply of door handle computer chips that you’re importing from Taiwan dries up without warning. Why car doors need computer chips is a great question, but we’ll leave that discussion for another time.

Why we need EVs, generally, is a much easier question, and its answer also partially explains why the sector (and the world) is so rife with uncertainty. Climate change is one of those rare problems that undermines its own solution: We need new technology to solve climate change, but climate change is stymying our ability to create that technology. Not every flood, heatwave, disease, or humanitarian crisis is directly attributable to climate change (you’d have a tough time convincing me that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is, at its core, a climate issue) but climate change makes flooding, heatwaves, zoonosis and civil strife more likely. And, as a result, at a time where societal cohesion is more critical than ever, it seems like the amplitude of uncertainty in business has never been higher.

Because we waited until the eleventh hour to start addressing it, climate change has become a pressure cooker on business. Mitigating its impacts requires that many things all happen simultaneously. It’s not enough to decarbonize the grid and convert cars to electric. We also need carbon capture, sustainable aviation fuels, a new way to make cement and a battery technology revolution. All at the same time. And any hiccup or setback means that the uncertainty we’re fighting to protect against grows.

And because the threats are so existential and multivariate it’s hard to imagine any CEO being able to anticipate them. Nobody saw COVID coming, not really. Not with the temporal acuity to steer a startup around the pothole. The other day my friend bought a bunch of Rivian stock. When I asked him why, he told me that he likes that they actually have cars on the road. Now, my friend is an idiot for a variety of reasons, but when it comes to betting on EV startups, actually delivering cars to consumers may be as good a tea leaf as any.

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