Mercedes-Benz Vision AVTR. Photographer: Robin Trajano. Source: Bloomberg
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Bloomberg’s journalist Hannah Elliott test drove the one and only Mercedes-Benz Vision AVTR.

Despite its name and the Avatar-related marketing campaign behind it, the Mercedes-Benz Vision AVTR is not actually in Avatar: The Way of Water.

First released as a thought experiment at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2020, Vision AVTR rolls on four oversized wheels that look like cartoon donuts. Its dual ovoid doors, which double as large side windows, are not what you’d call “seaworthy.”

The vehicle is, however, an example of what Mercedes thinks cars should be decades from now: electric, efficient, and made from sustainable materials. It is seamless inside between front and rear, and morphs between drive modes and appearance based on the mood of the driver. Gorden Wagener, Mercedes-Benz’s design chief, says the car of the future should be like a living organism—able to engender the same feelings about it that we might feel toward animals or even pets.

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The Vision AVTR can communicate with its environment by sensing input from humans, magnetic fields, light conditions and other cues. Photographer: Robin Trajano. Source: Bloomberg

“We designed it as a holistic system,” he says. “Everything can be changed, and at the same time has an impact on the whole organism, or the car. The user experience as a central element is comparable to a symbiotic organism.”

When it was introduced two years ago in Las Vegas, Vision AVTR was heralded as part of Mercedes-Benz’s big plan to sell only electric vehicles by 2030—a design exercise to show the path forward, so to speak. Now trotted out a second time to coincide with the film’s release, it is also a huge marketing play: The car was created in partnership between Mercedes-Benz and Lightstorm Entertainment, the production company Cameron founded in 1990. Avatar is the top-grossing film of all time, raking in more than $2.9 billion since it was released in 2009. Hitching a ride on that juggernaut is a no-brainer.

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There is only one Vision AVTR vehicle, which is tended to full-time by two technicians who travel with it around the world. Photographer: Robin Trajano. Source: Bloomberg

So, I was curious. When I was invited recently to have a drive, I got myself down to Manhattan Beach, California, to hop into the greenhouse cockpit as soon as I could.

I use the term “drive” loosely. It was really a few laps around a large production studio near the ocean. And I soon found out that operating the thing is more like guiding a large beast than steering a normal car. But I was happy for the chance to get into something so usable compared to a lot of the other concept cars brands promote, most of which don’t run at all.

As I walked toward the AVTR (shorthand for the film but also for “Advanced Vehicle Transformation,” says Mercedes), it sensed my presence. Lights outlining its doors and seats and wheels begin to illuminate, and its curvaceous doors opened. Thirty-three “bionic flaps” on the back moved and changed colors from red, purple and blue to greet me. It was like having a giant pet–say, a dragon–excited to finally have me home.

Once inside, I placed my hand on a mound between the two front seats; the top of it was shaped kind of like a computer mouse. It vibrated and rose up a little bit to show it had come “alive,” and that we were now connected. Mercedes says the effect was made to mimic when the Na’vi people in Avatar movies place their hands on each other and say, “I see you.”

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These seats are covered in vegan leather made from recycled materials including old clothing, flags and plastic bottles. Photographer: Robin Trajano. Source: Bloomberg

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Large areas such as the back shell of the seats are decorated with a color-changing fabric that changes from dark blue to a subtle light blue. Photographer: Robin Trajano. Source: Bloomberg

Okay, I’ll go with it.

I partially reclined to settle into my seat and admired the interior, which was done in a mix of sustainable materials like rattan and vegan leather. The entire dashboard had became a giant infotainment screen controlled by waving my hand in front of it. I raised my palm, and the system projected a menu onto it, which I controlled by flicking my hand back and forth. It was a little difficult to read—had the cues been on a touchscreen they would have been crisper.

I toggled through different scenes projected onto the front of the car, choosing one that placed me in a world like Pandora, which is the fictitious land where the Avatar characters called the Na’vi live. Three real-life places—the Huangshan Mountains of China, California’s Redwood forest and its 380-feet-high Hyperion tree and the pink salt Lake Hillier in Australia—will also project onto the screen; it will show magnetic and ultraviolet light fields, too. They have no practical purpose at the moment but do set a futuristic mood in the car.

After orienting myself inside and clearing the videos from the screen, the only thing to do was go. Vision AVTR boasts a combined motor power of more than 350 kW (469.3 horsepower) and all-wheel drive with torque vectoring. The battery system is especially unique. It uses graphene-based organic cell chemistry rather than the toxic and rare metals normally used for EVs. It will recharge in fewer than 15 minutes and boasts a range of 434 miles, according to Mercedes.

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The car has 33 movable surface elements on its rear that the company calls “bionic flaps.” Photographer: Robin Trajano. Source: Bloomberg

I did not come close to verifying those numbers, since the battery was hardly drained by my outing, but I can vouch for the car’s drivability. Operating the Vision AVTR is like playing golf or ping-pong: simple to learn, difficult to master. It would have helped had I been good at playing video games, because that’s what it felt like to pilot the car. (I should note that I was sitting on the right side of the car using my left hand to “drive”; Vision AVTR can be operated from either the right or left side.) To go forward, I pressed the top of the mound forward; to turn, I twisted it to the right or the left. I crab-walked it on diagonals by holding the controller in a 45-degree position and pressing forward. Look out Hummer EV!

Braking was easy, like regenerative brakes in existing EVs. I simply stopped pushing the controller forward and the car slowed. For quicker brakes, I pulled all the way back on it. The German engineer in the car with me said the scale-flap things stood more erect and grew brighter or laid lower with calmer colors depending on my driving style and speed, which sounded cool. I found myself thinking, Could this be the new robot pet I didn’t know I needed?

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The dashboard in the car illuminates with images of foreign worlds—or your own neighborhood. It looks better at nighttime than in the day. Photographer: Robin Trajano. Source: Bloomberg

As I crossed the parking lot, the car felt smooth, more like gliding than driving as I gazed out of the glass roof and casually guided the car forward. I am not ready to trade in my good old-fashioned steering-wheel cars yet—they’re much more engaging, precise and nimble to drive. But this at least wasn’t annoying for an afternoon jaunt, and more fun than just another appliance on four wheels. I felt like I’d caught a glimpse of what a computerized automotive companion could be in the future.

Sometime later, on my way to dinner one evening, I saw the Vision AVTR driving down Hollywood Boulevard with a police escort on its way to the Chinese Theater, where it would be for the movie’s premiere. I couldn’t help but think how cool it looked, and how proud I was to have driven it, even though it will never make it to production and lacks simple real-life necessities like side-mirrors, cup holders, storage space and proper bumpers. I’m not even convinced its cabin would be comfortable on summer days, since all the glass on the windshield and doors would seem to make it bake in the heat. But it still made me excited to think about the future of driving. As a thought experiment, Vision AVTR puts us one step closer to a point where car and human can be combined in some kind of friendly existence. I can’t wait to see it happen.

Originally published on Bloomberg.com

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