Frontier Executive Editor Dylan Goforth describes riding in a Canoo and meeting company CEO Tony Aquila.

When Clifton Adcock and I arrived in Bentonville, Ark. to test-drive one of Canoo Inc.’s 
“versatile lifestyle vehicles,” we found a mostly empty warehouse.

The company claims the state of Oklahoma has promised incentives valued at $300 million to build a factory in the state. Canoo also has a no-bid contract to provide up to 1,000 vehicles to Oklahoma state agencies over five years. But right now, its Arkansas factory is an empty shell. 

Canoo has signed a 10-year, $17-million lease for the massive, 270,000 square feet near the Bentonville airport. The company intends to start manufacturing vehicles in Arkansas by the end of this year, but that date could slip into early 2023, Reuters reported in May. Canoo has also promised to eventually build vehicles in Pryor at Mid-America Industrial Park. But plans to open the Oklahoma factory could also now be delayed until 2024, according to Reuters.  

The company invited us to Arkansas to try out its vaguely round, van-adjacent electric automobile that promises to go 250 miles per charge.

For me, the most interesting part of the experience was meeting Canoo CEO Tony Aquila in person. With gray hair, a beard, tattooed arms and rolled up sleeves, he gives off the vibe of being your uncle, or maybe a friend’s rule-breaking dad. 

To donate to The Frontier and help support our efforts to grow investigative journalism in Oklahoma, click here.

I got the feeling that he wanted to impress me and Cliff, not because we were reporters necessarily, but just because that is his default state. He cracked jokes about state incentives (his assistant was quick to say the company has taken no money from Oklahoma yet) and referred to the interior design of more traditional vehicles as being “Chinese crap.” 

Canoo wants its vehicles to be customizable. The company’s goal, according to Aquila, is to not just create a vehicle that can be customized  inside and outside. You want germ-killing blue lights in your vehicle? You got it. You want to turn your “lifestyle vehicle” into a truck? You can do that too. Maybe. We’ll see. 

Aquila wants drivers to be able to stick a new frame, which the company calls “top hats,” onto a Canoo chassis, and go home in something entirely different. 

There are also a variety of options for the interior. Aquila showed us a Canoo cargo van with blue lights across the top and sides of the back seating area that he promised would kill germs — perfect for food or grocery deliveries. 

At this point, it was time for our ride. Aquila got behind the wheel, Cliff was in the passenger seat and I was in the back. Cliff eventually got to drive the vehicle, which he’ll describe later. 

The backseat was roomy. The vehicle we drove was quiet and seemed to handle very well. Aquila often described it as being “an orange” and derided current American vehicles as being too boxy and “square.”

I didn’t fully understand his “orange” talk at first. He gave us a metaphor of how an orange will roll down a hill, but the square block has to be pushed. How that translates to cars, I’m not particularly sure, but to show off what he meant, he took us outside into the heavy rain. 

While we drove around Bentonville, Aquila asked us “What have we not done yet?” The answer was “turn on the windshield wipers.” He said the vehicle’s shape makes it so the rain filters off the vehicle. It was raining hard enough that, had I been driving, I would have turned the wipers on, but we drove the whole way without them. 

A Canoo vehicle parked inside a warehouse in Bentonville, Ark. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Aquila also spent time describing the van’s airflow, which he claims is better and healthier than a typical air conditioning system. He said the air in a Canoo vehicle “smells better” because “it’s ionized.”

“Your brain actually has 2.5 times slower response because of the history of vehicles, when you get into this, it’s two-and-a-half times faster,” he told us as he described the (admittedly impressive) field of view the vehicle offers from the driver’s seat.

After our test drive was over, Aquila took us to a small car that sits on the same size chassis as the Canoo van. I’m 6 feet, 3 inches tall and sitting in the back seat of a car is not fun. I sensed he really wanted me to feel cramped so I would compare it to the spacious back seat of the Canoo van I had just been in. But my first thought was how useless so much of the dash in a regular car is, just a bunch of plastic. When I brought that up, he replied “That’s China — all they want you to see is the anvil and the sickle.” 

Frontier Reporter Clifton Adcock describes driving a Canoo.

The rectangular steering wheel was initially intimidating, but the vehicle’s responsiveness to even slight adjustments put me at ease.

Aquila said Canoo will also be the first automotive brand on the market whose vehicles are entirely built around the “steer by wire” design. Steer-by-wire is a fairly new thing in the automotive industry. It means that there is no mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the tires, only electrical wires. 

Probably one of the most impressive aspects of driving was the vehicle’s field of view. I would compare driving a Canoo to watching a movie in an IMAX theater versus watching one at home on TV. 

After the drive was over and we returned to my car, it felt as if the dash, steering wheel, windshield, and infotainment center were all crowded right in my face. 

Driving the Canoo, it felt as if all of those things had been moved far forward, but still easily in reach. 

The interior of the Canoo was mostly sealed from outside noises — except for the torrential rain pounding on the vehicle as we drove — though we never got up to freeway speed during the drive.

I was also impressed at the level of “get up and go” the vehicle had on acceleration, which I did not expect from a purely electric vehicle. Aquila said the acceleration can be adjusted to get up to 350 horsepower out of the motor.

Aquila said he expects the manufacturer’s suggested retail price of the vehicles will be between $35,000 and $50,000, depending on the options and styles a buyer chooses.

“You can’t make it affordable without democratizing it,” Aquila said. “So what we tell the engineers is like, ‘look guys, what we want is something different. We want modularity. We want customization. And by the way, think of it more like a canvas.”