When you think of the future of transportation, you probably don’t think of water dragons like the ones in director James Cameron’s latest Avatar movie, Avatar: The Way of the Waterwhich will be released on December 16. You might be thinking of something more along the lines of the Mercedes-AVTR, which Mercedes debuted just before the pandemic at CES 2020.
The collaboration between the producers and directors of the latest Avatar film and the car company might seem like an unlikely collaboration – after all, there are no cars in the film and the Vision AVTR is not shown on screen. Still, after spending an afternoon driving this out-of-this-world concept and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the new film, it makes pretty good sense.
“Avatar as a movie as an IP across everything we do has something that a lot of movies don’t have, which is an ethos,” Jon Landau, COO of Lightstorm Entertainment and Oscar-winning producer of Avatarsaid via video conference at the event we attended in Manhattan Beach, California.
“We think these films are about something. That they challenge us to look at our world a little differently, to understand that our actions have an impact on the people around us and the world around us, and we were looking for partners who share the same kind of ethos. And I think Mercedes really has a vision for a sustainable future,” Landau told Ars.
Sustainable luxury has been Mercedes’ buzzword for some time now – ever since the launch of the Mercedes-Benz EQS in 2021. It’s easy to see the continuity between the AVTR and the Mercedes EQ line, as designers and engineers worked on both in parallel. As it turns out, the joint project between Cameron’s Avatar film franchise and Mercedes has provided a wealth of inspiration and future design direction for the German luxury brand, as well as some things that have already been implemented in real vehicles.
A new design of the human-car interface
As a result of COVID, the launch of Avatar the sequel was pushed back, giving Mercedes some time to consider the rolling concept. The company created a cockpit trestle – a full-scale model – to show off some of the future features that integrate everything from motion control to the use of machine vision to extend the human in the cockpit to the world outside.
If you know anything about Avatar, you know that the Na’vi people on Pandora connect, via their braids, to the dragons called Banshee that they ride. In the same way, the person in the AVTR concept connects via the heartbeat with the help of biometrics. While the money we put into learning about the AVTR’s joystick-like controls (more on that below) didn’t have the sensors necessary for biometric feedback, engineers had designed it to simulate a heartbeat and use machine vision to see the human in the seat .
When you walk up to the car it “wakes up” and seems to almost breathe with you. The pulsating lights seem to breathe or beat with your pulse, much like the Apple Watch does when it sleeps. It gives the machine a lifelike effect and, as Mercedes spokespeople say, makes it feel more like a living, breathing thing than a vehicle. The fins at the rear of the vehicle – used both for outward communication (stop, go, turn, accelerate, etc.) and as a modular fluid wing for drag reduction – flap and move.
Each of these weights and their movements were designed in collaboration with a university in Lausanne, Switzerland, which specializes in carbon fiber and organic robots. Apparently, when Mercedes engineers started working on the tiny actuators that move the weight, the movement was too robotic for designers, so they brought in the university. Seeing the weight flutter and move gives the AVTR a completely organic feel, almost as if you’re approaching an animal and not a machine.
When you climb in and place your hand on the only control-like interface in the vehicle on the center console, the car starts. The controls look like a stack of breathing stones, and Mercedes calls it Merge Control. It acts as the joystick (there is no steering wheel) for the car and is based on current adaptive technology that allows people with disabilities to drive in the real world.
When the car is on and ready to go, the screen that stretches like fabric across the front and center of the vehicle lights up. As this is a concept created in close collaboration with the producers of the Avatar films, the scenes on screen are those of Pandora, and essentially driving AVTR is like flying through a video game. The experience is immersive and complete with audio targeted to each side of the vehicle to help passengers better connect with the outside world.
Of course, no concept car would be complete without the addition of motion control, because there are no buttons anywhere. Raise your hand and an image is projected onto your palm. Move your palm left or right and you can see the other available icons. To select an option, close your hand into a fist as if grabbing the icon. In the trestle, I changed the scenery we were flying through just by opening and closing my hand. While this may seem like simple projection technology, Mercedes says it used machine vision to map thousands of different hand colors, shapes, orientations and sizes to ensure the feature would work consistently.