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Up close with Mercedes-Benz’s Avatar concept car

There are many questions one could ask about the Avatar-inspired concept car that Mercedes-Benz unveiled Monday night at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show. Why did the company think this was the best way to highlight its sustainability goals? How much of the ideas and technology in the car will ever translate to the road? And why Avatar?

But one of the security guards who spent the evening keeping tabs on the crowd had a much simpler query for a Mercedes-Benz employee: “Where are the windshield wipers?”

The answer he was given almost doesn’t matter, though it had something to do with hydrophobic glass, I think. Instead, the moment was a funny reminder that many people never grasp why concept cars exist, and that’s probably something automakers should consider.

At the highest level, concepts are supposed to serve a few purposes. They’re a playground where an automaker’s designers can run wild with ideas that might never make it into a straightforward production car. They act as something of a testbed for the most advanced technologies that an automaker is working on at any given moment. And they can serve as a signpost of where a company eventually wants to take its product lineup.

Mercedes-Benz hit most of those points during its hour-long press conference on Monday night, but they were also obscured by the glitz. There were butterfly drones flying around the theater, lots of typical tech event techno music, and the obligatory CES interview with Gary Shapiro. And then there was all of the Avatar stuff. We saw concept art from the Avatar sequel, which is allegedly due out sometime this century. We heard from producer Jon Landau about what his job is like. We were told how Mercedes-Benz wants to become the world’s “most loved luxury brand,” like that matters to anyone outside the company’s corporate retreats.

Then James Cameron came on stage and talked about protecting Gaia, but also about how he thinks it’s inevitable that humans and machines will merge, just like the Na’vi did with their banshees.

It was a lot! And it’s not that Mercedes-Benz lost the plot, exactly. But it did sort of suffer from what you could probably call Big CES Keynote disease. Companies that come here spend a lot of money, time, and resources in securing one of these prime slots on the eve of the show, and so they inevitably try to get as much bang for their buck. Sometimes that results in Intel assembling a menagerie of light-up trampoliners and octadecacopters. Other times it spawns… whatever this was. Mercedes-Benz did the right thing in focusing on one product and, ostensibly, one (grand) message. But it still sort of stretched the whole idea into oblivion.

Which brings us back to the windshield wiper question. Maybe that security guard wasn’t paying close attention to all the blue-tinted excitement that was happening on stage, and is perhaps he’s unfamiliar with the car industry in general. But I’d bet it was more that he was a bit bewildered, much like me or the woman next to me, who at one point gave up and started flipping through her vacation photos on her iPad. Had Mercedes-Benz truly stuck to its pitch — “we want to be green and this Avatar car shows how far we think we could stretch it if the sky’s the limit,” essentially — maybe that wouldn’t have been the first question on his mind at the end of the night.

As for the car, it’s a concept, and it looks really rad. You might disagree, and that’s kind of the point of these things as design exercises, so that’s great! I especially like the scales on the back of the car, which Mercedes-Benz calls ‘bionic flaps.” They make a really soothing noise when they move in unison. Overall, from the outside, I also think you could look at the many concepts Mercedes-Benz has brought to CES over the years and draw a somewhat straight line between them to this car, which is wild considering how different they all feel on their own terms.

The interior is cleanly and beautifully designed, I found the way the curves all fit together when viewed from a side profile to be pleasing. The wheels are a bit much, but they tickle a part of my brain that has to do with the toys I had as a kid. I also really enjoyed the feeling of the seats when sat inside a mockup of the cockpit during a sneak preview of the car and its various technologies.

None of those are things that truly speak to the car’s raison d’etre, and some of them are things that are easy to find in other concepts. Maybe in time they’ll fall by the wayside, and we’ll instead think back more on the parts of the car that are more core to Mercedes-Benz’s mission of sustainability. The more likely scenario, though, is that in a decade we’ll have to be reminded of the reason this car exists — which means an Avatar partnership actually is the perfect fit.

Photography by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

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