Rivian's Updated R1S and R1T Are In a Heart-Stopping Race to Smoke Tesla

I tried Rivian's updated SUV and truck and the mission to make Tesla sweat has never been more clear.

Rivian's second generation R1S electric SUV with new tires.
Photograph by James Pero

The minute I strapped on a helmet to test out Rivian’s new generation of electric vehicles, I could tell the Amazon-partnered electric car company was entering a new stage.

On a race track outside of Seattle, Washington, I — along with several other journalists and content creators — were eagerly awaiting to hop in two of the company’s refreshed R1S and R1T EVs, both of which were clad in shiny tire blankets to keep their rubber hot and ready for speed trials.

Needless to say, our experience wasn’t going to be your typical test drive. We were there to behold not just the power that four electric motors and a new drive unit bring to the table, but also how software (a critical piece of Rivian’s identity) can convey and augment the expert engineering of a car company with big ambitions.

More specifically, we were there, with Rivian’s help, to freakin’ launch — Tesla-style.

Ready For Liftoff

Big car go fast.

Photograph by James Pero

I say launch figuratively — this was the first time journalists got time to drive the new R1S and R1T — but also literally. Rivian was showcasing its updated EVs with a “launch” feature that unlocks the breakneck speed and torque of new quad-motor variants of both EVs. Inside those new EVs are lots of upgrades: all-new drive units, tires, a re-engineered suspension, and a big shakeup to the internal electrical systems that eliminates a mile of wires. This is not the “could have been a press release” of car refreshes; there are some serious under-the-hood upgrades.

The process of launching is deathly simple: Once the mode is activated, just depress both the brake pedal and accelerator, wait for an on-screen prompt to tell you you’re good to launch, then release the brake and prepare for liftoff.

I tried the mode twice — once on a quarter-mile and once for a 0 to 60 mph sprint — and saying “it works” is a massive understatement. Rivian says its quad-motor R1T is capable of hitting 60 mph in just 2.5 seconds, but I’m told the fastest time of the day in our group of speed demons was actually 2.4 seconds.

I felt like my head was going to fall off.

Not being a thrill-seeker or professional driver, I chickened out on both attempts and didn’t get to clock my speed (apparently if you don’t hold the accelerator down for the entirety of the launch, you don’t get a time), but I can say firmly that these things fly. I felt like my head was going to fall off.

Outside of the big-car-go fast of it all, Rivian’s decision to even introduce a launch mode to its EVs, let alone put it front and center in front of a bunch of media, says a lot about how the automaker is evolving for the future — one where (if everything goes according to plan) it’s selling not only the recently announced R2 SUV, but the smaller R3. Underlying features like launch mode and crazy-if-impractical acceleration are part of an ethos that cars (especially electric ones) are increasingly regarded as computers, or as big, expensive toys. And whether Rivian likes it or not, its EVs are competing with Elon Musk’s fleets.

Rivian isn’t just launching drivers at terrifying top speeds. Like every other automaker, the EV maker is launching straight into a race with Tesla for the top spot on the EV totem pole. And from where I’m perched, Rivian is adopting some of Tesla’s own tactics to hopefully eke out a win.

A Self-Driven Destiny

I don’t need explicit evidence from anyone at Rivian that they’re trending toward Tesla, because the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Launch mode may sound novel to anyone who drives an older car or who has never driven an EV, but you know what other car company includes a launch mode in its performance-oriented vehicles? If you guessed Tesla, you get a cookie.

And the Tesla-fication doesn’t stop there. One of the biggest updates in the new generation of R1S and R1T (yes, they are actually calling these second-generation, like a phone) is additional autonomy — and I’m not just talking about an OTA software update, either.

A new suite of cameras and radars will help propel more self-driving features for future Rivian customers.

Photograph by James Pero

Rivian’s new EVs are outfitted with loads of new sensors. Both the second-gen R1T and R1S are now equipped with 11 different internally developed cameras and five radars. And with new dual Nvidia Drive Orin processors coupled with Drive OS (Rivian’s own autonomous software), the company says its refreshed EVs are capable of performing more than 250 trillion operations per second, a figure it claims is an “industry-leading level of compute power” and 10 times the amount of computer power compared to its previous generation. To put that in perspective, the 16-core Neural Engine in the Phone 15 Pro with Apple’s A17 Pro chip maxes out at 35 trillion operations per second.

Rivian says its autonomous cameras also boast the highest number of megapixels in any car in North America — eight times more megapixels than the previous generation. What that means, according to James Philbin, Rivian’s vice president of autonomy and AI, is that the new R1T and R1S can see things up to three times farther away than previous models that don’t have the new suite of sensors — and see better in low-light or fog, too.

In case you couldn’t tell from all those facts and figures, what I’m telling you is what Rivian, at least tacitly, told me; the company is getting serious about self-driving. Behind its self-driving ambitions is a new system called the Rivian Autonomy Platform and Rivian Autonomy Platform+ that will usher in two relatively banal new self-driving features: Lane Change on Command, which will be available by software update this summer, and Enhanced Highway Assist, which will eventually enable a limited period of hands-free driving and is set to come out “later this year,” according to Rivian.

Here’s what you see before being shot out of a Rivian-made cannon.


One of the biggest things you need to know about the Rivian Autonomy Platform is that it zeroes in on machine learning, which means it can evolve over time with the goal of hopefully becoming more sophisticated as more drivers use it and more data is collected. To be clear, that method of improving self-driving is far from novel — machine learning is a major, major, component of Tesla’s strategy to improve its Full Self-Driving Beta — but it is, however, a signal that Rivian, much like Tesla, sees self-driving as a serious part of its future.

And if that isn’t proof enough of Rivian’s interest in self-driving, there’s more. Inside Rivian’s second-gen cars, according to Philbin, is enough hardware sophistication, and room for growth, to ostensibly pave the way for a future where a Rivian’s computer is more than just an assistant.

“There’s nothing in principle that we can’t achieve with this specific stack,” says Philbin, adding that Rivian doesn’t have any immediate plans to announce anything beyond a Level 2 autonomous system. “It’s really a software limitation.”

... the driver display showed the vehicle “thinking” about where to cut into a lane with digital representations of cars, cyclists, and pedestrians around us.

I got a chance to try the second-gen self-driving and, while I don’t have much of a comparison to the first generation, I was at least initially impressed with Lane Change on Command, which successfully maneuvered our R1S into a new lane in fairly congested Seattle traffic. No casualties or fender benders were recorded.

Was I nervous to test out a nascent autonomous feature on a highway with loads of cars around? You bet. But Rivian’s UI did give its best effort to assuage my concerns — the driver display showed the vehicle “thinking” about where to cut into a lane with digital representations of cars, cyclists, and pedestrians around us.

It’s no Full Self-Driving Beta, and you can only use it on pre-mapped highways, but for Rivian, it’s a pointed diversion in the same direction.

Where Car Meets Character

Cel-shading isn’t just for indie games anymore.

Photograph by James Pero

Rivian has always had its own distinct personality as a car company, but the second generation of R1T and R1S takes that even further with more customizations to a Rivian-built UI. One of the most noticeable changes — if maybe the most frivolous — is an expanded integration with Unreal Engine.

What is Unreal Engine doing in a car, you ask? Sorry, gamers — it’s not for gaming. In Rivian’s new generation of vehicles, the 3D graphics engine is powering new cel-shaded animations that illustrate nine different drive modes. It sounds minor and in a lot of ways it is, but it also gives the new EVs a unique feel. Graphics are animated and even interactive. If you use two fingers to touch the screen, you can slightly manipulate the animation to reveal a bit of the third dimension.

I got a chance to ogle the animations for myself, and while it may not be an honest-to-god selling point for any one potential or current Rivian owner, it did make me feel like I was in a Rivian EV, not just any electric car. If you’re spending $70,000 to $75,000 on a car (the base prices for the dual-motor R1T and R1S, respectively), those subtle bits of flair may all add up to make you feel like your money was well spent.

“We care a lot about aesthetics — we pay a lot of attention to icons, to design language, to how things look from a UI standpoint.”

Likewise, companies like Tesla realized that having a bit of fun with their UX and UI goes a long way. Sure, letting your car make fart noises was juvenile at best and dangerous at worst, but it captured — for better or worse — an audience. And do you need a real-time digital representation of your Cybertruck smack dab in the middle of a custom-built UI? No, you do not. But if you’re prone to being a lover of a brand and not just a customer, each silly feature could theoretically add up to an actual fandom.

“We care a lot about aesthetics — we pay a lot of attention to icons, to design language, to how things look from a UI standpoint,” Wassym Bensaid, Rivian’s chief software officer, tells Inverse. “Cel-shading is one chapter now in our journey. It allows us to introduce some moments of playfulness and that really matters when given the amount of time you spend in your vehicle — having something you feel connected to.”

Related Tags