Mercedes built a concept car for Avatar, and we drove it

Enlarge / Many concepts are static models, but Mercedes-Benz has built one that works. At least at low speed.


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 think of something more along the lines of the Mercedes-AVTR, which Mercedes debuted just before the pandemic on CES in 2020.

The collaboration between the producers and directors of the latest Avatar film and the car company may seem unlikely – after all, there are no cars in the film and the Vision AVTR does not appear on screen. But after spending an afternoon driving this otherworldly concept and taking a behind-the-scenes look at the new movie, it makes a fair bit of sense.

“Avatar as a movie as an IP in all the things we do has something that a lot of movies don’t have, and that’s an ethos,” Jon Landau, COO of Lightstorm Entertainment and Academy Award-winning producer of avatarsaid via video conference at the event we attended in Manhattan Beach, California.

“We believe 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 people around us and the world around us, and we sought partners who share the same kind of ethos. And I think Mercedes really has a vision for a sustainable future,” Landau told Ars.

The AVTR's interior design can be found in recent production EVs from Mercedes, such as the EQS and EQE.
Enlarge / The AVTR’s interior design can be found in recent production EVs from Mercedes, such as the EQS and EQE.


Sustainable luxury has been the buzzword of Mercedes for quite some time since the launch of the Mercedes Benz EQS in 2021. It’s easy to see the through line between the AVTR and Mercedes EQ line as designers and engineers worked on both in parallel. As it turns out, the joint project between Cameron’s Avatar movie franchise and Mercedes has provided a wealth of inspiration and future design directions for the German luxury brand, as well as some things already being implemented in actual vehicles.

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A new design of the human-car interface

Due to COVID, the launch of the avatar sequel was delayed, meaning Mercedes had some time to think about the rolling concept. The company created a cockpit trestle — a full-scale model — to showcase some of the features of the future that integrate everything from gesture control to using machine vision to extend the human in the cockpit to the outside world.

The AVTR cockpit stand.
Enlarge / The AVTR cockpit stand.

Abigail Bassett

If you know anything about avatar, do you know that the Na’vi people on Pandora connect through their braids to the dragons called Banshee that they ride. Similarly, in the AVTR concept, the human connects through their heartbeat, using biometrics. While the buck we sat in to learn about the AVTR’s joystick-like controls (more on that below) didn’t have the sensors needed for biometric feedback, engineers designed it to simulate heartbeat and machine vision. use to see man in the chair.

As you walk to the car, he “wakes up” and almost seems to be breathing with you. The pulsating lights seem to breathe or beat with your heartbeat, just like your Apple Watch does when it’s asleep. It gives the machine a lifelike effect and, as Mercedes spokesmen say, feels more like a living, breathing thing than a vehicle. The fins at the rear of the vehicle – used both for outward communication (stopping, going, turning, accelerating, etc.) and as a modular fluid wing for wind resistance reduction – flutter and move.

The scale can be backlit.
Enlarge / The scale can be backlit.


Each of those shells and their movement was designed in collaboration with a university in Lausanne, Switzerland, that specializes in carbon fiber and organic robots. Apparently, when Mercedes engineers started working on the tiny actuators that move the shells, the movement was too robotic for designers, so they called in the university. Seeing the scales flutter and move gives the AVTR a completely organic feel, almost like you’re approaching an animal and not a machine.

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As soon as you get 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 pile of breathing bricks and Mercedes calls it Merge Control. It acts as the joystick (there is no steering wheel) for the car and it is based on current adaptive technology that allows people with disabilities to drive cars in the real world.

The full-width screen is reminiscent of the one Mercedes used in the EQXX concept, except it's more otherworldly.
Enlarge / The full-width screen is reminiscent of the one Mercedes used in the EQXX concept, except it’s more otherworldly.


When the car is on and ready to drive, the screen lights up and stretches like fabric across the front and center of the vehicle. Since this is a concept created in close collaboration with the producers of the Avatar movies, the scenes on that screen are Pandora’s, and in the buck, controlling the AVTR is like flying through a video game. The experience is immersive and complete with audio tailored to each side of the vehicle to better connect occupants with the outside world.

Of course, no concept vehicle would be complete without the addition of gesture controls, as there are no buttons anywhere. Raise your inner hand and an image will be projected onto your palm. Move your palm left or right and you can see the other available icons. To choose an option, close your hand into a fist as if grabbing the icon. In the trestle I changed the landscape we flew 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.

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