When the first navigation systems came to market, motorists had to manually type in a destination. Now, they simply have to speak and, in most vehicles, a voice control system will do the rest. But there may soon come a day when you just have to think about where you want to go before your vehicle takes you there autonomously.
That, at least, is the idea behind the updated Vision AVTR concept that Mercedes-Benz is showing off at this year’s Munich Motor Show. Pronounced “Avatar,” the concept initially was developed in cooperation with James Cameron, director of the smash hit movie by that name. It first debuted at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Now, it has made the trek across the Atlantic and gotten some new, cutting-edge technology along the way.
“Mercedes-Benz is setting another milestone in the merging of man and machine with the research and development of brain-computer interface applications in cars,” said Britta Seeger, member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG, responsible for Sales.
“BCI technology has the potential to further enhance driving comfort in the future. (It) works completely independently of speech and touch. This opens up revolutionary possibilities for intuitive interaction with the vehicle.”
Using brain power
Visitors to the Munich show will get the chance to try out the brain-computer interface by climbing into a mockup of the Vision AVTR’s driver’s seat. Light dots are then projected onto a digital dashboard while a wrap-around band with “wearable” electrodes monitors and records brain activity.
After a minute-long calibration, driver and vehicle are linked and the BCI system can measure neuronal activity as visual stimuli are displayed on the digital dashboard. The system then detects what the driver is focused on, using that to trigger different vehicle functions. That could be used to turn on lights, pick a parking spot or, at some point, input information like your destination.
The BCI technology, says Mercedes, is “similar to the neuronal connection between the Na’vi and nature” in Cameron’s blockbuster film, “Avatar.”
A closer connection
The name of the Mercedes Vision concept actually is short for “Advanced Vehicle Transformation.” The all-electric show car features a mix of sustainable materials, flexible body panels, and an electric drive system that can travel over 400 miles per charge and turn on a dime. It also offers passengers immersive virtual and augmented reality games and scenarios influenced by Cameron’s outer space adventure.
“Not only is it beautifully designed but it will create a closer connection with the driver and the environment around them. One that hopefully results in a better understanding of our responsibility to the world in which we live,” said Jon Landau, the producer of “Avatar,” who joined Cameron during the debut of the AVTR concept at CES in January 2020.
The four-door concept bears more than a slight resemblance to the Banshee flying vehicles used by the film’s cat-like aliens, the Na’Vi. One of the most distinctive features is the use of 33 movable “surface elements” that not only appear to bring the concept to life but which actually have a functional purpose, helping maximize aerodynamics and extend the AVTR’s range.
As with the flying vehicles called Banshees, the Mercedes Vision AVTR is designed to intuitively link driver and vehicle. In the CES version, you could place your hand on the glowing central controller and it will read your pulse while allowing you to operate many of the prototype’s functions. When you lift your hand, the concept vehicle projects onto your palm a list of different functions.
An immersive experience
AVTR also features both virtual and augmented reality technology, the automaker explaining that “The interior of the Vision AVTR becomes an immersive experience space and conveys a completely new user experience.”
While there are plenty of fantasy features on the AVTR that make it unlikely to actually ever roll down an assembly line, there are others that will be translated into production, according to Mercedes. That includes the twin-motor all-electric drive system producing 470 horsepower and a range of 435 miles.
What’s particularly unusual about the AVTR’s drive system, however, is its use of cutting-edge graphene batteries, rather than the lithium-ion technology currently on the market. Not only could they store more energy but graphene batteries don’t require cobalt and other exotic metals that are not only rare and expensive but also difficult to recycle. The graphene batteries, according to Mercedes, could be composted at the end of their life.
The drive system also is capable of powering its two motors in opposite directions so the AVTR can “crab,” or turn up to 30 degrees.
The one-bow design of the concept vehicle is itself coming to life, the AVTR concept influencing the sleekly aerodynamic shape of the new Mercedes EQS sedan that will go on sale in the U.S. later this year.