LAS VEGAS—When Mercedes-Benz first attended CES a decade ago, the company felt as if it was an imposter in a tech fantasy land, Daimler AG Chairman Ola Kallenius said during a keynote address here at CES.

But now, with half a dozen car companies and hundreds of suppliers in attendance, CES could pass as the world's most interesting car show, and the concept car Mercedes introduced this week fits right in.

Called the Vision Avtr (Avtr is pronounced phonetically), it's inspired by 2009's blockbuster film Avatar, and intended to show off the sustainability efforts of Mercedes and its Daimler parent company. And in the long tradition of celebrity CES appearances, none other than Avatar director James Cameron introduced the car during a keynote address.

"As we become more urban, we have this kind of nature deficit disorder," Cameron said while standing in front of the concept car, which looks vaguely reptilian thanks to 33 mechanical scales that resemble one of the Navi characters from Cameron's film. Mercedes refers to these scales as "bionic flaps."

"The distinctive inside-out design structure combines inside and outside into an emotional whole," as Mercedes puts it. "With its stretched 'One Bow' design and organic design language, the Vision Avtr offers a visionary outlook on the design of the future."

The car may look organic, but from the creepy scales to the gaping wheel arches, it's not a particularly attractive concept. Its looks are far less important than the amount of sustainable features packed inside it, however. Instead of a combustion engine, the Vision Avtr uses a battery whose graphene-based organic cell chemistry is completely free of rare-Earth elements. The battery can even be composted.

The rattan wood floor is from hand-harvested Indonesian timber, and the seats are made from vegan leather. In the cockpit, there's no steering wheel. There aren't even any buttons or switches. Instead, controls and vehicle functions are projected onto the body or hand of the driver or the passengers.

You can't buy a concept car, of course, but that didn't stop James Cameron, who is working on a sequel to the $3-billion-grossing Avatar, from trying to take home a Vision Avtr for himself.

"I was devastated to find out that I can't just order one," he said.

Mercedes isn't the only car maker with a CES concept car; the fully autonomous Audi AI:ME comes with VR goggles and a 3D OLED screen controlled by eye movement and voice. And Sony, which is not known for making cars, unveiled the Vision-S, which is more a showcase for its technology than an actual product.

By Tom Brant

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