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2 little-known automotive startups are leading the race to become the next Tesla

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A lot of car companies are racing to be the next Tesla, but right now two little-known startups are at the front of the pack. Rivian and Lucid are each worth more than Ford right now even though they've only made a few hundred vehicles. NPR's Camila Domonoske explains why these two companies are out in front.

JAMES CHEN: Once the light turns green - yep. You can punch it a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE SPUTTERING)

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Last week I took Rivian's electric pickup truck for a spin.

This one's got a left hook.

CHEN: Yeah.

DOMONOSKE: Both these electric vehicle startups have hit a huge milestone. They're actually producing and selling their vehicles today. That's why I could zoom around D.C. in that truck. Both companies also have a ton of cash in the bank and big plans to scale up. So who are these companies? Let's start with Rivian.

CHEN: So if you think of Tesla as the Brooks Brothers suit, we're the Patagonia.

DOMONOSKE: That's James Chen, who leads Rivian's policy work in D.C. He's a lawyer and a ski patroller, which kind of sums up Rivian's whole vibe.

CHEN: OK, so you wouldn't wear the Brooks Brothers suit to go camping or adventuring or the ski hill, but you would wear your Patagonia.

DOMONOSKE: This pick-up truck is designed for off-roading and adventure. But it's also a $70,000 luxury truck, so you're not exactly roughing it. Ryan Luaces with the Rivian corporate fleet starts to demonstrate some features.

RYAN LUACES: If you're out camping and you want to listen to music outside the car, a full speaker - Bluetooth speaker comes out.

DOMONOSKE: An electric vehicle doesn't need an engine, which freed up space for a frunk - that's front trunk - that doubles as a cooler. There's an option to add a camp kitchen with an induction stove top. Now, remember how there are two companies in this story? If Tesla is a nice suit and Rivian is a pricy Patagonia jacket, Lucid would be a clothing brand so posh I've never heard of it.

PETER RAWLINSON: Yeah. Well, unashamedly, this is a high-end product. It's an awesome machine. It's a true luxury electric car.

DOMONOSKE: That's CEO Peter Rawlinson. He took me for a drive back before Lucid went public. The sleek sedan is whisper-quiet and smooth. It also has 500 miles of range and claims record-setting charge times.

RAWLINSON: We're able to charge nearly 300 miles of range in just 20 minutes. No one else is even close to that.

DOMONOSKE: Lucid says its closest competition is the Mercedes S-Class, the famously luxurious sedan. In the Tysons Corner Mall at a new Lucid storefront across from a Michael Kors, people keep stopping to gawk at the car. One woman says it makes Tesla look basic. Ryan Baxter is helping launch this location, and he points to the details of the finishes.

RYAN BAXTER: Napa full-grain leather, Alcantara suede, naturally colored alpaca wool.

DOMONOSKE: This particular model costs 170 grand, and it's sold out. Both of these new electric automakers now face huge challenges. They need to scale up from a few hundred vehicles to tens of thousands, and they need to outcompete all the big automakers who are planning to make much cheaper electric vehicles. But investors seem to be betting that startups can innovate more easily than incumbents can change. And that's why Rivian and Lucid, these two new names, are now some of the most valuable automakers on Earth. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRAFTWERK SONG, "AUTOBAHN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.