The Rivian R3 Is Proof That Full Self-Driving Doesn't Need To Be a Major Selling Point

Tesla keeps saying self-driving cars are the future. What if they’re not?

Rivian's R3 and R3X hatchback SUV will start delivering in 2026, starting at a price that will be le...
Lais Borges/Inverse; Rivian

Rivian, the Tesla competitor focused on creating EVs for outdoor adventures, finally showed off its next electric cars, the $45,000 Rivian R2, and in an Apple-esque surprise, the even smaller Rivian R3 and R3X.

The company’s goal was to introduce a more affordable EV than its pricey R1T and R1S, and at least on paper, it succeeded. The R2 SUV is cheaper than the over $70,000 that an R1S starts at, and it’s theoretically going to be followed by an even smaller and more affordable option.

While the 2026 launch of the R2 is still a ways off, Rivian needed a positive story. The company reported $5.4 billion in net annual losses in 2023 and laid off 10 percent of its staff. Proving you can still design a car that gets people hyped might not turn things around, but it helps.

What really stands out about the smaller Rivian R3 in particular, though, is how the most exciting thing about it has little to do with the typical futuristic framing of EVs. There was really no emphasis put on the R3’s ability to drive itself; it was sold on aesthetics, size, and functionality alone, a pretty good example of the dimming interest in self-driving overall.

Getting a Car To Drive Itself Is Hard

Apple spent years collecting training data for self-driving software that never came together.

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That’s not for lack of trying, of course. Figuring out self-driving is just a much, much harder problem than basically anyone working on a solution for it ever considered. The timing of the R3’s announcement lines up pretty closely with Bloomberg reporting out the story of Apple’s failed “Project Titan” car, which was plagued with the kind of hubris and optimistic delusion that you might need to solve big problems, but doesn’t lead to good decisions. Apple reportedly toyed with multiple options: building its own car from scratch, outright buying Tesla, partnering with a car maker like Mercedes, and even just selling self-driving car software as a subscription. But none of those plans ever came to fruition.

Of course, there are plenty of public autonomous driving failures to point to as well. Third-party startups like Comma.ai, which sells aftermarket self-driving hardware and software, have seemed to diminish their ambitions over the last few years. Comma.ai’s founder George Hotz stepped down as CEO in 2022 over the difficulties of making autonomous vehicles happen. Tesla’s Autopilot looks… stressful to say the least, based on YouTube videos posted after the company’s Full Self Driving Beta was released in 2023. General Motors’ self-driving startup Cruise was responsible for a car hitting and dragging a pedestrian in San Francisco that same year. A Waymo was set on fire in San Francisco just this year, a litmus test, some have credibly argued, for how little people care for autonomous driving in general.

Self-driving car technology just isn’t coming together on a time scale companies can make money from, if it even happens at all.

Journalist John Herrman described Apple’s failed car project as “​​a pretty late signal that the self-driving bubble has burst” in New York Magazine and I think that feels apt. Self-driving car technology just isn’t coming together on a time scale companies can make money from, if it even happens at all. And the testing needed to be done to make it possible is dangerous and increasingly not tolerated by the average person.

People Just Want a Nice Car

The Rivian R3 looks practical, but still premium.


It’s to Rivian’s credit that the company doesn’t seem particularly bullish on self-driving. The company offers a set of features called Driver+ that allow your car to control speed, change lanes, and avoid obstacles with your hands off the wheel on certain highways, but it’s not the all-inclusive solution Tesla is pushing with its Full Self Driving feature. Autonomous driving is also not part of the main pitch for any of Rivian’s cars. Rivian’s focused the selling points of its EVs on things normal cars are sold on: size, range, speed, and design.

The R3 is built on the R2’s new mid-range SUV platform and comes in two different battery sizes, the larger of which “will achieve over 300 miles of range on a single charge and offer 0–60 mph acceleration in under 3 seconds for the quickest powertrain configuration,” according to the company. It’ll also support Tesla’s NACS charging standard and network natively, alongside Rivian’s Adventure Network, a first for the company. Look, the R3’s got a hatchback, it’s compact, and overall, it just seems like a nice car. And that, alongside price, increasingly seems like the two things you need to make an EV appealing to car buyers. The R3 doesn’t have to be a living room on wheels, it just needs to be a really nice EV with modern car comforts and conveniences.

The R3 doesn’t have to be a living room on wheels, it just needs to be a really nice EV with modern car comforts and conveniences.

Whether Rivian can actually build these new cars remains to be seen. The announcement of the R2, R3, and R3X was paired with the announcement that Rivian’s was pausing development on a new car factory in Georgia. The motivation was saving some $2.5 billion, Rivian CEO RJ Scarige shared in an interview with The Verge. That does suggest that producing the R2 and later the R3 and R3X in the same factory where Rivian is already building its first two cars could get tricky. But that's just another flavor of the same uncertainty facing a lot of EV makers. What seems clearer than ever now is that if Rivian can pull its ambitious move into affordable midsize cars off, Tesla’s self-driving difference will matter less than ever.

Ten years ago, car makers, led by none other than Tesla, boasted that all cars by today would be electric and fully autonomous. There’s no doubt that all cars will be electric very soon, but with self-driving tech that could one day become a robotaxi and earn you money while you sleep? Car makers dreamed too far ahead into the future, and now the reality of self-driving car technology reaching Level 5 autonomy is starting to fade. Understanding all of the randomness that happens on the road is simply harder to solve than originally imagined.

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