Designing the New 2022 Rivian R1S

We speak with the director of exterior design and chief engineer about developing the new electric SUV

The electric vehicle brand Rivian continues to impress car enthusiasts thanks to its performance, technology and materials. Compared with other EV brands and legacy carmakers in the space, Rivians don’t look quite like anything else on the road—a fact that’s somewhat surprising considering the company’s CEO, RJ Scaringe, is renowned for being pragmatic. We recently took the brand’s 2022 R1S SUV for a drive and found that the experience matched its aesthetic. With 835hp and 908 lb-ft of torque, and the ability to race to 60mph in three seconds flat (and to almost scale a vertical mud wall), this SUV impresses.

Courtesy of Rivian

To get a better understanding of the R1S’s development, we spoke with Rivian’s director of exterior design, Jonathan Szczupak, and chief engineer, Charles Sanderson, about bringing the SUV from concept to reality. Australian-born Sanderson (who previously worked at McLaren) and British designer Szczupak (who worked at Ford on cars like the Focus ST) share an innate appreciation of the relationship between form and function, the visual language of pragmatism as well as Scaringe’s problem-solving approach which focuses on tiny details—inside and out.

by Michael Frank

We know that aerodynamics matter immensely for EVs, and many of them have an oval-shape you could draw in your sleep—but not Rivian. How have you solved that issue without echoing competitors?

Charles Sanderson: Aerodynamics are so important but at the same time the customer couldn’t care less. They care about the range figure. You can’t have an adventure vehicle that goes 200 miles because you can’t get to Death Valley and back and have it be the overnight camping vehicle that we’re looking for. So there’s a wonderful hidden engineering feat that goes on to find out a shape that does everything practically but then delivers on all of the performance targets… It’s got to look practical, and the best shape for that is to be square in back, and in the engineering community we’re sitting there thinking, “This has just got to be practical.” I want to put something into the back of the vehicle so it has to look like it can do that.

Jonathan Szczupak: We’re an adventure brand, right? Before we start any conversation it was about adventure. People want to throw the whole family in the car and go on a road trip. Having that squared-off, very functional, formal silhouette that tells you you can store all your stuff in the back was, for me, the one thing this SUV had to have. And I’m working to earn it every step of the way—we ran night shifts in the wind tunnel and we had this tiny little chamfer on the top of the back and we knew that would give us a bunch more miles. I’ve never been part of a group that worked as hard to the very millimeter of adjustment just to get it to where we needed it to be.

Courtesy of Rivian

If the back is an area where a buyer might not notice the effort, the front wheel arch is certainly a place they will look because it has a unique cutout just behind the front tire. Can you tell us a little about that?

JS: There’s the area on the front of the front fender and there’s the exit at the rear. Then you’ve got these big tires we’ve got to package in that area. Then we’ve got the arch line—which, by the way, I wanted to design and style and make sure was the cleanest looking thing you’ve ever seen because we knew it was going to get covered in mud and dirt and people would actually look right at it. The whole design team was constantly trying to simplify while I’m there standing up for the aerodynamics saying, “No they need this; if you change the radius here it will effect the airflow.” We’re just pushing for perfection. A lot of what you’re seeing there is actually a little crazy because it’s what you’d see in race cars, and here we’re using what we’ve learned on an SUV.

CS: What we call the “air curtain” that’s in front of the wheel is actually trying to clean up the airflow that is heavily disturbed by the wheel. We use the air curtains to keep that air from detaching; any detach there is basically a negative pressure and creates drag. You want the air down the side of the car clean. And we want to try and get the airflow out the side and do that cleanly rather than exiting underneath the car or anywhere else.

Courtesy of Rivian

A vehicle’s face needs to be instantly recognizable and to be able to scale down, too—since Rivian won’t always work in this big-vehicle format. Within the R1S face, the obvious signature has to be the pill-shaped lights and the width-wise LED. What’s achieved by these and what face do these help create?

CS: I can’t tell you the number of times we asked, “Should we keep the lights?” I never veered from saying yes because we’re creating a brand, but even at the last minute…

JS: It was unbelievable. Right toward the end of the program we went into a huge redesign on the lamps. We spent all this time building out lamps as tabletop models and put them in vehicles to prove it out. Then we kind of got to the end and we’re like, “This could be bad. These aren’t good enough.” They needed a little more detail, a little more precision. We really put our heart and soul into bringing that stadium shape and to get right the way they switch on, to get to an incredibly beautiful piece of design.

CS: Probably the hardest is the bit that you couldn’t care less about, and that’s the grille. It’s still funny now, how we got to that repeated “pill” shape. The most efficient shape to pass air through is a hexagon, but if we just slapped a hexagon pattern on there now it’s not referencing any design language anywhere else on the car so it would be completely out of place. We went through hundreds of iterations to get that right.

JS: A lot of the face came from RJ, who kept saying it shouldn’t look like it wants to hurt you; it should look like you want to interact with it. That’s been a big part of how we do design. I had my R1T truck and I’m dropping my six-year-old daughter off at school and there are crossing guards and kids jumping out of minivans and these little six- to 12-year-olds are just stopping in their tracks and staring. It’s got that kind of approachable playfulness to it. A successful brand face is one like this, one that little kids remember.

Hero image courtesy of Rivian