Rivian eyes software upcharges around AR and autonomy, not heated seats

We're well past the revelation that automakers are software companies. But as the industry deepens its software roots, firms are still figuring out which upgrades they'll charge for — and what folks are willing to pay.

Subscription fatigue is real; the last thing anybody needs is another recurring charge. It's even more frustrating when fees unlock features that are pre-built into luxury cars. That's why BMW walked back its contentious software subscription for heated seat access earlier this year. It also explains why Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe seemed determined not to piss off customers while he speculated on the software Rivian will charge for.

Scaringe cited automated driving and augmented reality as upcharge opportunities on a call with investors Tuesday. Charging for autonomy is the "model that we think is going to fit," the CEO said broadly. Rivian vehicles already ship with driver assistance features, dubbed Driver+. Yet, Rivian doesn't offer level 3 autonomy; Driver+ requires drivers pay full attention to the road and it warns them to keep their hands on the wheel.

Still, Rivian recently elected former Waymo CEO John Krafcik to its board, and two dozen of Rivian's open roles mention "autonomy." The company's actions, and common sense, signal that more automated driving features are in the works at Rivian, and it's noteworthy that Scaringe seems to think it'll become a revenue driver. The CEO didn't speculate on pricing. Tangentially, Mercedes Benz said it's making the leap to level 3 next year in the U.S., via a $2,500-per-year system it calls Drive Pilot.

'We don't think that that's going to land well'

Scaringe argued on the call that the industry overestimates how much automakers can charge for each software upgrade. "The idea of charging for heated seats or charging for sort of a binary one or zero — like turning a feature on and off, we don't think that that's going to land well with consumers," said Scaringe in a dig at BMW.

Yet, Scaringe expressed interest in upcharges for more substantial features, including something like augmented reality. "Particularly as you start to think about AR and the way the vehicle can interact with its environment, we think those represent opportunities for an incremental charge above and beyond the base platform," Scaringe said.

Scaringe didn't go into specifics, but when automakers mention in-car AR, usually they're talking about safety and navigation applications that do stuff like overlay arrows on live footage of the road ahead. For better or worse, automakers are also thinking bigger. Audi (via Holoride) and BMW (with Meta), for example, have shown interest in developing immersive virtual reality experiences for passengers. Honestly, that sounds like they're just asking for tummy aches.