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Rivian’s New Cel-Shaded Infotainment Update Is Cool—and Mandatory

Rivian's new UI design is great. But I don't love the idea of an automaker drastically changing the look of my car without my consent.
Andrew P. Collins Avatar
Rivian electric vehicle screen display.
Andrew P. Collins

Major, fresh-for-2025 updates on the Rivian R1S SUV and R1T pickup truck dropped this week. Open our comprehensive first-drive review in another tab to check out later if you haven’t! One of the vehicle’s most immediately obvious changes, a completely new aesthetic for the user interface, will be applied to every Rivian already on the road thanks to the magic of constant connectivity and over-the-air updates.

There are two factors to discuss here: The objective excellence of Rivian’s new-style UI design, and the double-edged sword of mandatory updates significantly changing your car’s aesthetic without your consent.

For the 2025 model year, Rivian has evolved its human-machine interface displays from glossy-photorealistic to a high-contrast, high-edge-intensity, cartoony look. This style is known as cel-shading. You might’ve heard of that; the aesthetic is trendy right now. No fades or gradients, flatter colors, and simple shapes. Think comic-book energy.

Here’s a quick demo from Rivian showcasing some of the transition animations on their own, and how they look within the infotainment software:

This old image from a 2022 Rivian press kit will give you a sense of what the original UI looked like:

Rivian

There are plenty of Rivian infotainment walkaround videos on YouTube from before this week if you’d like a really in-depth tour of the outgoing system. Meanwhile, applying cel shading to an automotive interface was a great idea. It’s cool-looking and distinctive, and I imagine it might even be less demanding of processor power than photorealistic on-screen rendering. It certainly does a good job of concealing hiccups or blips that might occur in menu transitions.

Specifically, Rivian’s UI shows the car in various contexts related to its drive modes and settings. Neat little subtle animations like a flickering campfire or flapping birds on the horizon give the menus just enough spice to look alive without being distracting. It’s very well done.

And if the cartoon displays are too goofy for you, you can just run the gauge panel screen, which is super clean and loaded with useful information. I told Rivian’s people they should add a developer mode for those of us who’d like to see every scrap of information the car’s computers might have. It seemed like the company’s designers spent a lot of time deciding what to put on those screens to be informative without overwhelming people, though.

Rivian used Epic Games’ Unreal Engine to create its digital environment. UE is named after the first-person shooter game Unreal from 1998 (anybody remember that one?), the first consumer product made using the first version of the software. We’re now on Unreal Engine 5.something, and it’s one of the best-known digital design tools used to make all kinds of apps and games.

UE is kind of like Photoshop for making video games—it’s a graphical interface that you can use to create functional and interactive digital worlds without doing all the coding manually. Put another way: It’s a visual editor for writing in the C++ programming language. Here’s a 100-second rundown I like if you’re looking for more context:

Epic Games, which owns an operates UE, put out a release with some nuggets from Rivian’s people who worked on the project:

“Every physical part of the vehicle must be represented in the correct way, from the tires to wheels, cladding, paint, windows, and trim. We went through a ton of variations for the vehicle lines, how they are placed on the vehicle, and how they’re weighted. Lighting became a unique challenge, as it’s not lit in the traditional sense, but we still need to produce reflections on the vehicle because after all, it is still covered in paint and glass … We’re using a lot of custom shaders to bring this to life, and we owe the final look to the rapid iteration we were able to achieve with Unreal Engine materials.”

Andreas Poser, Rivian’s Visualization Lead (Unreal Engine release)

“It’s a fully interactive experience, and none of it can be baked. For instance, in the drive modes app, you can switch between any of the nine modes instantly. We can’t plan for the combinatorics, due to the numerous animations involved, and scaling would pose challenges. We have to dynamically construct the worlds during these transitions, even if the driver changes their mind halfway through. These rules influenced how we constructed and managed the world around the vehicle.”

Eddy Reyes, a senior manager on Rivian’s Embedded Software Experiences team (Unreal Engine release)

Rivian’s new UI is one of the only noticeable visual changes between the earlier R1S and R1T builds and the new-for-2025 model—and soon that difference will disappear. All Rivians on the road right now will get the new cel-shading screen look via a free, but mandatory, over-the-air update.

That’s great news … if you like the new design. After praising Rivian’s creativity and aesthetic choices here, this is where I return to skepticism about modern cars. If you bought a Rivian in 2022 and loved the infotainment skin it came with, sorry, you can’t keep it.

If somebody snuck into my garage and put different-color gauge faces on one of my cars while I was sleeping, I’ll tell you what, I’m not sure I’d be pleased.

Of course, this is commonplace in the world of software. When your smartphone or game console or computer need an operating system update, you’re getting the new look whether you like it or not. To be honest, that annoys me a little bit too. But it doesn’t bother me as much because I see computers and phones as appliances; I don’t spend any mental energy pondering the finer points of their virtual aesthetic. I think most people who drive feel that way about their vehicles; I recognize I’m an edge case. But I can’t be the only one.

A car nerd, the look of my vehicles (inside and out) is a huge deal to me. I spent a lot of mental energy making customizations, recoloring things, fitting expensive floormats, using masking tape and rulers to apply stickers with Porsche-factory precision, and so on. I take a lot of pride in the very specific look of my cars. The idea of somebody dictating that the look of my gauges will change is stressful to me.

All that to say, I’m impressed with Rivian’s update and give its designers a lot of credit. But I’m a little nervous about the whole auto industry adopting this forced-change strategy in the future.

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