Is Amazon getting into the car-making business?

Could Amazon eventually be the tech company that
does more to drive forward autonomous cars than, say, Google or Uber?

Given that Apple has floundered, somewhat rudderless, in its efforts to break into the car business, you might think that tech rival, and retail giant, Amazon would show some circumspection when it comes to turning to the automotive industry. This it has — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos might have invested millions in both newspaper publishing and space exploration, but he’s proving a little more careful when it comes to cars. Unlike Apple’s abortive attempt, Amazon seems to have no plans to turn itself into a car maker.

It seems very happy to make significant investments in companies that do, or at least might, make cars, though. Cars and the autonomous systems that may (or may not — depends on whom you listen to) drive them around for us. Amazon’s recent big investments in both autonomous tech and electric car making could indicate that Bezos really does want to steal a march on rivals such as Apple and Google and start breaking into a car industry bracing for a ‘disruptive’ uprising. Or, he could just be looking to get some good discounts on autonomous cars to supply Amazon’s own courier delivery services.

Strategic investment

Either way, Amazon’s investment in Rivian is an interesting one. Of all the Tesla-rivalling startups, Rivian looks to be one of the more interesting. Or possibly the more outlandish, depending on one’s point of view. The Michigan-based electric car maker has shown concept versions of both a large pickup truck and a seven-seat SUV — two car categories which American car buyers can apparently not get enough of.

Based around a common ‘skateboard-like’ platform, the Rivian vehicles will come with, assuming they do make it to production, a 105kWh battery stack with a nominal range of around 300km, or a humungous 180kWh battery that can power the cars for more than 650km. That’s not the astonishing part. The astonishing part is that Rivian claims to be able to harness their electric motors’ low-down torque, and the cars’ all-wheel drive traction, to be able to accelerate from standstill to beyond 60mph (97km/h) in 2.8secs. That means here is a pickup truck and a big, family SUV, both capable of towing more than 5,000kg of trailer weight, which can beat a Lamborghini away from the traffic lights.

Gathering momentum

According to Rivian, it: “Is made up of more than 700 adventurous individuals and counting. We’re beginning by electrifying trucks and SUVs, because they are often the most-polluting vehicles on the road — a problem for people like us, who want to stay active and require a ride that is capable of handling every kind of terrain skilfully, and hauling all kinds of gear, and loved ones, effortlessly.”

That’s an impressive-enough spec that Ford, too,  has seen fit to put its money where Rivian’s mouth is, investing USD$500-million into the startup, and announcing that it will co-develop a new range of Ford electric vehicles around Rivian’s ‘skateboard’ platform.

Possibly even more significant than the Ford investment is Amazon’s. It was part of a second-round USD$700-million investment in the car maker, split between Amazon and Abdul Lateef Jameel Company, a Saudi Arabia-based investor which already held a stake in Rivian.

Amazon embracing autonomous

The company, which already has its own factory — an ex-Mitsubishi plant — intends to put both the pickup and the SUV into series production in 2020 and 2021 respectively. For now, Rivian isn’t talking about Tesla-rivalling sales numbers, expecting to start small and build up from there, but company founder RJ Scaringe has said that he already has another four models, all based around the same modular ‘skateboard’ chassis, on the drawing board, so there’s clearly ambition aplenty there.

Amazon has also made an investment in Aurora, a company which has been working hard in the background of the autonomous car scene, and which has partnered with Hyundai to help the Korean car maker develop its autonomous systems.

The investment comes as part of a ‘Series B’ financing round, in which Aurora raised some USD$530-million. Again, Amazon was not the only investor. Much of the investment came from Sequoia, a large US-based fund manager, as well as T. Rowe Price Associates.

Autonomy and when to engage

While Aurora is generally unknown outside of the car industry, it has quite the pedigree. Co-founder Chris Urmson was previously the chief technology officer at Google’s autonomous car division, while fellow co-founder Sterling Anderson was part of the team that created Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’ system.

Aurora has said that it’s working, with Hyundai, to bring ‘Level 4’ autonomous vehicles to the market by 2021. Level 4 is something of a contentious term, as it theoretically implies a level of autonomy in which a car than entirely drive itself, but comes with the caveat “under certain conditions.” Many experts believe that the car industry would do best to skip over the partially-autonomous Levels 3 and 4 altogether and wait until the technology has matured to fully-autonomous Level 5 before releasing it to the market.