It’s only been a few months since Rivian started (slowly) delivering the R1T pickup truck to customers, but the company isn’t wasting time launching its next adventure vehicle: the R1S SUV.
I recently spent the day with a few early production R1Ss at a Rivian media event and it came off as an impressively capable and useful family vehicle — which it should, considering it starts at $72,500 and quickly options up to $90,000. But Rivian is a brand new company that has yet to ramp up production on any of its cars. Its total target is just 25,000 vehicles a year, of which 10,000 will be Amazon delivery vans, so actually getting an R1S might be the biggest adventure of all.
From the front door forward, the R1S is the exact same truck as the R1T. The only differences, according to Rivian communications manager Shaheen Karimian, are a slight bit of additional silver trim on the outside, and the addition of a button on the wiper stalk to control the rear window wiper. The drivetrain and suspensions are the same, the 12.3-inch instrument cluster and 15.6- inch infotainment display are the same, the frunk is the same — you get it.
The most important shared piece between the R1T and R1T is Rivian’s built-from-scratch hardware and software architecture. Most car companies — with the notable exception of Tesla — operate much like Android and Windows hardware vendors: they buy finished components and subsystems from suppliers and assemble them into finished cars, with differentiating features and flourishes layered on top. But just as Dell and Samsung depend on Google and Microsoft for most software updates, most carmakers are at the mercy of suppliers to update the software in their cars — a dependency many traditional car companies have identified as an existential competitive threat. (You can listen to virtually any Decoder car CEO interview to understand how much they are all thinking about this.)
But Rivian is a wholly new company, with none of those preexisting relationships or dependencies, and the ability to build a team with the required software expertise from the start. If a traditional automaker is roughly analogous to a Windows laptop maker, Rivian (and, yes, Tesla) is much more like Apple: in total control of hardware and software.
Rivian vice president of software development Wassym Bensaid told me that his 600-person software team had written almost all the code in the R1 vehicles, even down to the bootloaders for various microcontrollers. That vertical integration means that the R1S and R1T share a common software platform that can be updated over the air extremely quickly, both solving problems discovered by customers — the frunk closing tolerances weren’t quite dialed in — and adding features like “pet comfort mode,” which lets the trucks maintain temperature if you need to leave a pet in the car for a while. Other features are coming soon, including planned updates that will add quad-zone climate controls and other capabilities to the rear touchscreen.
I bring all this up because while the R1S is a very nice three-row electric SUV with the ability to fit five carseats in it, what really sets it apart is the software experience. The graphics are all handled by Epic’s Unreal Engine, which allows for various photorealistic renders of the truck to appear on the displays, and virtually everything you can think of is controllable from the touchscreen. To a fault, actually: touchscreen HVAC controls are never any fun, and Rivian’s vent controls in particular are software overkill: changing where the air is blowing requires bringing up a fullscreen render of the car interior that you move vent icons around. It’s flashy, but in no way better than having regular old vents that you can just move around with your hands.
All that software needs to run on powerful hardware, and although Rivian steadfastly declines to specify what chips or suppliers it’s using, vice president of hardware engineering Vidya Rajagopalan told me that the current software wasn’t close to maxing out the available compute power in the R1 vehicles, which have been specced to provide seven to 10 years of usable performance as updates roll in. In another nod towards the benefits of Rivian’s clean-sheet design, Rajagopolan and I spent several minutes talking about the car’s single-pair Ethernet internal networking architecture, something traditional automakers have been slowly moving towards for a decade now.
Rivian had scheduled a two-hour drive down a winding mountain highway in an R1S with 21-inch wheels to an offroad course where more R1Ss equipped with 20-inch offroad wheels and tires were waiting as our test loop for the day.
Off-road, the R1S was a wonder; it has a shorter wheelbase than the R1T and was easier to navigate through the course Rivian had set up. Compared to traditional off-roaders, which generally require managing the transmission and differentials through various four-wheel-drive modes to make sure power from the engine is getting to the right wheel at the right time, the R1S was hilariously simple to drive. The four independent motors with torque vectoring, aggressive regenerative braking, advanced air suspension, and a dedicated rock-crawl mode with a max speed of 19mph made driving through muddy ruts, small creeks, and up rocky hills almost too easy: you can solve every problem by pressing the accelerator, and the R1S just figures it out. In true Verge fashion, I did manage to make our unit suffer: I hit some sharp rocks in the creek and popped a tire. (Rivian had a van full of spares, don’t worry.)
No one at Rivian seemed to be under any illusions about how many R1S owners would actually take these $90,000 SUVs off-road; like Land Rover and Jeep, the off-road capability is part of the appeal but rarely part of the experience. On the highway and a few small-town streets where most Rivian owners will spend their time, the R1S was composed and confident. The quad-motor drivetrain offers 835 horsepower and the delightful instant EV torque made highway passing effortless. An SUV that’s bigger than a BMW X5 doing 0-60 in well under four seconds is not a normal thing to experience, but the R1S can do it without drama at any moment.
Rivian’s Driver+ advanced driver assistance system allows for hands-free driving on select highways, but it wasn’t available on the roads we traveled, instead offering only adaptive cruise control with lane-keep assist. It’s odd that Rivian offer a hands-free driving mode but doesn’t offer the combination of adaptive cruise control and automatic lane-centering that systems like Ford’s BlueCruise have as a nice fallback half-step on highways that aren’t mapped for hands-free driving.
The R1S configured with the standard battery pack and dual motors is rated at 260 miles of range; the $6,000 extended pack bumps that up to 320 miles. The extended pack is required if you opt for quad motors, a combination which delivers 316 miles of range. (You will get less range if you find yourself putting those quad motors to good use in the passing lane as often as I did, which is a worthwhile and delightful tradeoff.) We didn’t have an opportunity to hunt after charging stations or try out any at-home charging options, but Rivian is building out its own charging network and uses the standard J1772 connector, with support for “over 200kW” charging speeds, although those speeds have been hard to come by in the R1T so far. (Rivian has promised speeds of up to 300kW with a software update in the future.)
The R1S is very nice inside, but doesn’t quite feel like a luxury SUV, even if the most natural competitors in this price range are from Land Rover, BMW, and Mercedes. The materials are well-chosen, things are nicely laid out, and nothing feels cheap, but you’re clearly paying the money for the drivetrain and the fancy software. You won’t see family-friendly features like power-folding third row seats or built-in window shades in the doors. (And there’s no shade for the glass roof either, which is the worst trend in modern EVs: the Mustang Mach-E and Tesla Model 3 and Y don’t have one either.) And where the R1T has some nifty packaging tricks like the “gear tunnel” in between the rear seats and the pickup bed, the R1S is far more normal, for lack of a better word.
But familiar packaging with an extraordinary drivetrain and a potentially industry-changing hardware and software stack is not a bad combination, especially since there’s less, um, chaos around Rivian than Tesla, which is the only other car company playing in mainstream categories with similar advantages. One day of driving under the watchful eyes of Rivian staffers isn’t enough to say the R1S is a contender, but it feels like one.
The problem, of course, is that contending in the car market requires having cars to sell, and Rivian will have precious few R1S units available. Production has started — the R1S units we were driving were actual early production models with VIN numbers that will eventually go to Rivian employees — but aside from saying some customers will take delivery sometime between August and September with more units to follow, there’s no more timeline information in the face of reported delays, and reserving an R1S online right now results only in a promise of delivery in “late 2023.”
That’s a lot of question marks, but spending the day with Rivian’s team and their products makes it clear that there’s an enormous amount of potential here. Just please — please — add some physical buttons to those HVAC controls.