Test Driving the Mercedes Vision AVTR Concept, a Car Straight Out of 2154

Most concept cars that look this wild don’t actually drive. This one does—and that’s just the start.

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Test Driving the Mercedes Vision AVTR Concept, a Car Straight Out of 2154 © Test Driving the Mercedes Vision AVTR Concept, a Car Straight Out of 2154

We've posited before that for all the dead ends and impossible dreams out there, concept cars are a surprisingly useful codex for understanding not only a company's future plans, but where automotive technology is broadly headed. Like many automakers reckoning with electrification, Mercedes-Benz has been tipping its hand pretty forcefully of late.

Just in the last three years, there's been the Vision EQS, which previewed the production Mercedes EQS sedan; the EQG Concept, a quad-motor G-Wagen that looks...exactly like a G-Wagen; the Vision EQXX, a fully-functional streamliner prototype (that we also drove) with a 700+ mile range whose battery tech and axial flux motors will reportedly spread around the lineup; the Vision AMG, whose windowless design we hope doesn't spread around the lineup; and now the soup d'jour: the Vision AVTR, a slice of 2154 that feels about as far removed from today's reality as a certain all-powerful Hollywood director.

Real it is, though, and at last so too is the movie it's tied in with—Avatar: The Way of Water comes out this Thursday after years of delays. While it looks as wild as it does, and much of its promised advancements like its brainwave scanners and neuromorphic hardware and self-driving capacities are firmly in the hypothetical stage, the Vision AVTR concept is no movie prop. (It doesn't appear in the movie at all.) It's a functional, drivable EV with quad-motor AWD. So when Mercedes hit us up and asked if we wanted to take it for a spin around James Cameron's Manhattan Beach studios, how could we resist seeing how close—or how far—the future really is?

If You Could Read My Mind

To get to the car is as complicated as reaching Jim himself. Sign this NDA form. Head to this address at exactly this time. Get past the guard, then make your way to a holding area they call The Museum (stocked with a bunch of props from Cameron's oeuvre) to await further instructions. When summoned, walk down three hallways—do not deviate—and finally through a sealed soundstage door into a cavernous space that could fit a 777. There you'll meet the Vision AVTR.

Along the way, I had plenty of time to wonder the same thing as you: why? Why did Mercedes make a concept car promoting a movie it otherwise has nothing to do with? Set aside the obvious answers of money and attention and there is a deeper connection here. The Avatar movies preach a brand of environmentalism that focuses on the beauty of nature as a reason to protect it. Mercedes-Benz is a company that likes beautiful things, and also really needs to figure out how to make cars sustainable long term.

That's how you get the Vision AVTR, a car with a feature set that reads like it's been ripped from Cameron's dream journal. Mercedes Chief Designer Gorden Wagener says the design brief was to make a car that looks like it could fit in on Pandora, and I'd say they've accomplished that. Its huge, light-streaked balloon tires (which are actually traditionally-shaped tires with a giant cap and 945 LEDs on them); the arcing roofline and huge glass doors; and the array of scale-like panels that flutter and twitch on carbon fiber "origami" legs in response to stimuli make the AVTR feel not of this planet. There are no traditional controls inside, just a giant screen and a palm-sized joystick controller in the center console that Mercedes people keep calling the "jellyfish." Just about the only thing that does feel familiar is the front end, which Wagener points out previewed the production EQS sedan's face when the Vision AVTR was first shown at CES 2020.

The sustainability goal is expressed through the heavy use of recycled or recyclable materials inside and out, including a graphene-based 110 kWh battery that Mercedes claims is compostable. Otherwise, the whole effort is about making a car that feels like a living, breathing companion, one that can recognize and react to your presence and the surrounding environment via an array of sensors and scanners.

Without traditional buttons or screens in the cabin, the Vision AVTR's infotainment relies on two key advancements—controlling it with gestures, and controlling it with your mind. The gesture function actually works. Sitting in the seat, if you raise your hand up with your palm facing you, a menu will suddenly appear on it (beamed down from a projector in the ceiling), and you can manipulate it with a series of hand movements. This feels like the future. And back at the 2021 Munich auto show, Mercedes actually hooked up a rudimentary brainwave scanning system to the car and—after an individualized calibration process for each demo—was able to show that it's at least technically possible for an infotainment system to respond to your thoughts.

The Vision AVTR was also the first place Mercedes previewed its Hyperscreen infotainment setup now found in its production EQS vehicles, though here it's a single, uninterrupted display area with bigger dreams of projecting realtime images of its surroundings into the cabin for an "invisible wall" effect. It's also got a quad-motor AWD setup (billed as "near-wheel," not actual hub motors), the likes of which will make it to the upcoming production electric G-Wagen.

Ridiculous, or Visionary?

Again, the meat of the Vision AVTR—a brain-machine interface that turns your vehicle into a biomechanical extension of you—is still just that, a vision. The neural link startup sequence that sweeps across the cabin when you place your hand on the controller is a nifty animation triggered by an array of positional sensors, cameras, and projectors in the ceiling. But it's not actually sensing your breathing and heartbeat, though an engineer told me that's a software limitation, not a hardware one. The organic pulsing of the so-called "jellyfish" controller is a bunch of servos doing their thing. The array of reptilian scales pouring down the back run randomized sequences and can be controlled with an app; I watched one Mercedes employee spin his finger on a tablet as the little panels dutifully followed. The single-display hyperscreen is in fact a projection because it's not possible to make a screen curve the way Mercedes wants to yet.

But that's the thing about concept cars. I'm not saying Mercedes is anywhere close to making a production car that you can control with your mind. I am saying similar quantum leaps, things that sound absurd in their time but become mainstream decades later once the tech catches up, have appeared in concept cars from decades past—satellite navigation being one obvious example.

All the way back in 1982, just four years after the first military GPS satellites were launched and almost two decades before it was fully unlocked for civilian use, Ford made the Lincoln Continental Concept 100 with an experimental sat-nav system that functioned exactly like ours do today—just completely unfeasible for production. But the underlying tech already existed, no matter how nuts that application seemed at the time. You could argue the same is true for biometric systems in cars. Genesis already has fingerprint access on the new GV70; how far are we really from something like an unobtrusive retina scanner that unlocks your car and activates your personal driver profile and cabin preferences? Or even an infotainment system that we can operate with our thoughts?

James Cameron famously delayed making both Avatar movies for years because the technology he envisioned and deemed necessary to film them didn't actually exist yet. That brings me to one more point that shouldn't be glossed over: Mercedes didn't have to go through making the Vision AVTR actually drive. To be sure, if this was 2009 and Mercedes was rolling out an electric pod car with no steering wheel to promote the first Avatar, it probably wouldn't—just too complicated. But battery and EV powertrain tech have advanced enough in 13 years to make it possible. And the fact that you can climb behind the non-wheel is what takes the whole thing from a marketing exercise to something a lot more fascinating.

Driving the Vision AVTR

The Vision AVTR sits glowing in that darkened soundstage, surrounded by a few concerned-looking Germans tapping their tablets and prodding various systems. It's time for my test drive—but first, a ridealong with one of the engineers so I can see the control system in action. Even climbing and sitting down is an odd sensation, as the fixed-position seats are reclined to a degree that would make normal driving impossible if there were a steering wheel and pedals to manipulate. Instead, the engineer palms the central control and presses down on the front edge ever so slightly. The car inches forward through a massive access door into the light, and we're off.

There's no denying the Vision AVTR looks like a sci-fi dream in motion. In a five-minute lap around the studio complex, people are constantly stopping and staring, mouths agape, phones aloft—and these are people who work in movies, who are used to seeing all kinds of crazy shit brought to life. Inside, you may or may not be surprised to learn the experience is a lot less polished, though no less incredible to behold.

For one, there's the sound—forward progress (limited to around 15 mph) is accompanied by a loud, high-pitched noise halfway between a whir and a squeal due to the slip ring connectors needed to keep the wheels lit up in motion. The ride quality is also pretty terrible thanks to the wheel design; it does have a simple pushrod suspension system, but the size leaves little room for travel and the whole thing is incredibly stiff. That unyielding chassis also generates a ton of shakes and rattles in the cabin; part of the driver side A-pillar trim was already falling off as a result. There's a rip in the accordion-like rubber controller boot. And outside in maybe 65-degree ambient temperatures, it gets hot pretty quickly in an all-glass cabin without any sort of climate control.

But oh, what a gloriously unhinged feeling it is to sit in a car without a wheel or pedals or even a traditional dashboard, watch the driver prod a weird jellyfish-shaped joystick thing instead, and actually feel the vehicle respond precisely to his inputs. It's not mind control, but with his practiced, barely detectable movements fluidly guiding the Vision AVTR down the road, the vision of a man-machine mind meld feels a little less ridiculous.

Test lap completed, it's my turn to take the, er, jellyfish. Thanks to its central position, we don't even need to switch seats; from the "passenger" side, I just rest my left hand on it and start driving. The controller is extremely sensitive, picking up tiny left-right variations as I try to press and hold it directly forward, making straight-line driving a surprising challenge. My engineer friend says I should string together light forward throttle applications and let momentum carry us along; this does make it easier to stay true.

Between the rear-wheel steering and crab walk function, which can slide the car at a 30-degree angle, using the controller to maneuver a priceless concept car around a studio backlot full of construction crews and big trucks was far less stressful than it could've been. Though, the twisting movement required to crab walk is hard and awkward to do while also pushing the controller forward, so you have to be careful with your throttle timing to do it smoothly.

The specs state the Vision AVTR has a 110 kWh battery and a combined 469 horsepower, and Mercedes swears that's technically true and not just a projection. At any rate, the Vision AVTR is in extreme dummy mode for today's test drive—it accelerates about as quick as an electric golf cart when you slam the controller forward—and the way everything shakes over the mixed-quality backlot surface encourages you to back off before even getting to 15 mph. The brakes, standard discs borrowed from an unidentified production Mercedes, work, which is about all you can glean about brakes from a test drive like this.

As we round the main studio building and approach the access door, I ask if I can take another lap. Sure! This time, I key into the experience. Leaning back, feeling the slight resistance in the controller, watching the world glide by through the massive windshield, I can glimpse the future this wants to represent, this seamless world where you buy a recyclable, self-driving pod car thing that can zip you and your family almost anywhere by itself, with an intuitive control system for when you want to drive.

They are literally reinventing the wheel here, yes, but also, pod car life is kinda nice? The lounge chair seats, the infinite legroom, the overall focus on personal comfort—as much as true self-driving cars can feel like an unattainable solution in search of a problem, when you're sitting in a fully-realized vision for one, you kinda see what the fuss is about. It'd be great to have my AVTR take me through rush hour traffic in LA, then palm it through my neighborhood and into my driveway. Still, as simple as that sounds, it's an open question whether advanced self-driving tech is any closer to fruition than the mind-reading biometric stuff. Something like the Vision AVTR will probably arrive before 2154, when the Avatar movies take place. Smart money says it'll be closer to then than now.

More Than a Marketing Exercise

Back inside, in a strange three-way Zoom call in one of the studio's screening rooms with a 20-foot-tall Gorden Wagener and producer Jon Landau on the big screen, Wagener chuckles as he reflects on the process of taking on the project. "I was shocked the first time I saw the machines in the movie, because like Jon said, they’re brutal machines, they’re destroying nature," he says. And as design conversations progressed, Wagener says his team decided it was "crucial" to make the Vision AVTR drivable with a radical new control scheme, because they wanted to inspire people to think seriously about the changes it represents and not view it as a fancy paperweight.

Landau echoed this, raving about how seamless it felt the first time he drove it. He also confirmed that yes, cars do exist in the Avatar universe, though so far they haven't spent a ton of time fleshing out exactly what makes and models have survived back on Earth in 2154.

That version of Earth, incidentally, is environmentally ruined, having been stripped of all its natural resources. A beautiful, high-tech car that looks like it drove out of next century is certainly attention getting, and its sustainable goals may very well inspire future product decisions, but the Vision AVTR alone won't fix what ails our society and planet. (And if we're taking its design aspirations seriously, that means the AVTR was supposedly born of a future society that's already royally fucked things up.)

That's not a knock against the car or its stated goals—no single design exercise is going to move the needle. But multibillion-dollar franchises at the center of a global conversation? Those can. The vision of a sustainable, self-driving electric car has been bought and sold a thousand times over without ever being realized. But attach one to a behemoth like Avatar and the nothing-is-impossible attitude of James Cameron, and suddenly, the picture feels a little clearer.

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