From “active motion” massaging seats to near-autonomous driving systems, the car user experience is constantly evolving. Programs like Apple CarPlay allow cars to serve as seamless extensions of our smartphones. It may seem strange to call a car operator a “user.” However, given the technological integration of modern cars, the term “driver” may be growing outdated faster than we realize. After all, taking a nap while your Tesla chauffeurs you on autopilot can hardly be considered driving.
For the car aficionados, this constitutes a tragic degradation of the car. For example, the phrase “there’s no replacement for displacement” has become a popular criticism of the movement toward smaller engines with turbochargers in place of larger engines. Likewise, #savethemanuals is commonly used on Instagram in mourning the quickly-dying manual transmission—a traditional token of driver engagement when most cars are automatic.
Due to tech like adjustable air suspension and expansive panoramic sunroofs, modern cars are larger, heavier, and frequently less engaging to drive than cars from twenty years ago. Weight and ungainly chassis dynamics are now counterbalanced by driver-assistance programs like stability control and all-wheel drive, many of which cannot be deactivated and interfere in performance-driving situations. Enthusiasts miss the driver-machine connection present in older cars and critique the lack of driver engagement in modern vehicles. For example, BMW’s 3-Series sedans were once renowned for their balanced chassis design and manual transmissions. After a redesign in 2012, they were criticized for becoming too insulated—the communicative and connected driving experience was gone, and a warm, soulful machine was diminished to a cold and impersonal appliance. Buyers who had bonded with their older cars found the new generation hard to love.
Is this the death of the engaging driving experience? Certainly not: it would be naive to suggest all modern cars are dull to drive. Just because engaging “everyday” cars are getting harder to find doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Porsche has pledged to continue offering manual transmissions in their 911 sports cars. And innovation doesn’t always have to mean convenience at the cost of character. In fact, there may be a new type of driver-engagement on the horizon.
In January 2020, Daimler AG (the German parent company of Mercedes-Benz and other transportation groups) unveiled their new concept car at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In the design process, Daimler partnered with the filmmakers of Avatar (the blue person one). The core element of their concept (named the Vision AVTR, meaning ‘advanced vehicle transformation’) focuses on the emotional connection between driver and machine. To facilitate this rapport, the Vision AVTR was designed to emulate a living organism. Designers added functional scales to the car’s sloping roof. These moving scales flatten under hard acceleration, or raise up like the hackles of an angry dog to make the car seem alive. Inside, the user interface is entirely different: rather than having to initiate an action, the driver holds out their palm and the car projects menus into their open hand, as if the car itself is interacting with the driver. The central controls are designed to move and pulse, mimicking the breath and heartbeat of an animal. The philosophy is solely focused on engagement—something today’s cars are missing.
Even if the cars of the future aren’t actually as mechanically exciting to drive, we can hope they will have a different kind of character, rather than be relegated to soulless tools. While Daimler’s partnership with Avatar may be a blatant marketing stunt, their philosophy has the potential to bring character back to our cars—after all, it’s safe to say we love our pets more than our refrigerators.