As automakers race to bring self-driving and all-electric vehicles to the masses, one is looking even further ahead—to a future when car and driver might function as one. So what will that meeting of minds look like? That’s the big question Mercedes-Benz is exploring with its ultra eco-friendly, mind-controlled car: Vision AVTR. The funky name stands for advanced vehicle transformation. And it’s pronounced avatar, with the car taking its name—and inspiration—from James Cameron’s sustainability-drenched tale in which the protagonists can establish neural connection with the natural world on the moon of Pandora.
The German automaker unveiled the concept car in September after devoting more than a year to iterating from a first version that debuted in early 2020. The upgraded model—a sequel, if you will—partners Mercedes with entertainment powerhouse Disney to create a vehicle that acts less like a car, and more as a living thing, says Ola Källenius, chairman of the board of management, Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG. Gorden Wagener, chief design officer at Daimler AG, Mercedes’ parent company, says, “We wanted to design a car that could connect seamlessly with its passengers.”
To give the car its mind-reading capabilities, the team tapped into brain-computer interface technology. Currently being used in medical research to help patients with limited or no mobility, the tech works independently of speech or physical touch—opening up new possibilities for intuitive UX.
Drivers access the technology by donning a headpiece equipped with “wearable” electrodes. Once the car syncs with the user, the dashboard displays visual stimuli to detect what the person is focused on by measuring neuronal activity. These responses trigger different vehicle functions—such as turning on lights or selecting a parking spot—with all technical and functional elements operated intuitively.
To turn its futuristic vision into current-day reality, Mercedes adopted a new holistic design approach. The process called for interior and exterior user interface teams to collaborate from the start—putting passenger needs at the center of the action. And for the first time, the team designed the vehicle from the inside out.
Forget the conventional steering wheel. The team instead installed a multifunctional control element in the center console, allowing drivers to turn the car on with a few hand swipes. The team also built in biometric design elements that recognize a driver based on their heartbeat and breath. For example, the car’s haptic seats can measure passengers’ vital signs to adjust the environment based on the driver’s stress level or even alert a parent to an excited child in the back seat.
Among the car’s more striking features are the 33 bionic flaps covering the exterior. But they don’t just look cool. They can stand up to tilt to communicate with the driver and the outside environment. Oh, and they have solar cells, too.
The team’s use of sustainable materials and functions that resemble living organisms was inspired by Avatar, but it also represents the company’s outlook for an eco-friendlier future, Wagener says. When designing the interior, for example, the team only used organic and vegan materials, and Mercedes points to its use of so-called neuromorphic hardware as a way to limit the energy requirements of sensors, chips and other components to a few watts. It’s also staking a claim for developing “revolutionary” battery technology that not only charges fast, but is based on graphene-based organic cell chemistry, which the company says “eliminates rare, toxic and expensive earths such as metals.”
As the world searches for ways to combat climate change, cars are a prime target. Yet that’s not how Mercedes sees it: The solution is not fewer vehicles, but better ones, says Källenius. “We believe that inspiration and fascination are the most powerful drivers for change and progress.”