Barcelona - Although you might have seen much of it in teaser videos by now, this is Audi’s all-new A8 flagship sedan in the flesh and not only does it usher in a new design language for the brand, but it's also ready to embrace the driverless revolution.
Audi claims that its new limo is the first car in the world to have been developed for “highly automated” driving, with a host of piloted driving functions set to be rolled out from 2018 onwards.
The system includes the ‘Audi Al’ traffic jam pilot that allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel and focus on other activities, at speeds of up to 60km/h on freeways where a physical barrier separates the two carriageways. While the car can and will quite happily accelerate, brake and steer itself under those aforementioned conditions, allowing the driver to catch up with e-mails or watch TV, the legality of this situation is going to differ from country to country.
The system, activated via the ‘Al’ button on the steering wheel, uses radar sensors, cameras, ultra-sonic sensors as well as a laser scanner to monitor the car’s surroundings, allowing the car’s central assistance controller to permanently compute an image of the car’s surroundings.
But you better not fall asleep as the system will still call on you to take back control if it gets confused, or if the surrounding traffic starts exceeding 60km/h.
The Audi Al system will also offer a smartphone-activated remote parking pilot that can autonomously steer the car into and out of parking spaces and garages without the driver needing to be in the car. But the show doesn't stop there as the new A8's LED taillight strip with OLED technology will even produce light animations for you as you leave (or approach) the car. Talking lights, flagship models also get high definition Matrix LED headlights with laser lighting.
Fancy a foot massage?
But notwithstanding how impressive all of its autopilot technology is, many A8 owners are no doubt going to leave that all to Jeeves in any case.
Fittingly then, and because both the regular and long wheelbase versions have grown in size, there’s more leg-stretching room inside for rear occupants. More so in the A8L, which gets an optional “relaxation seat” at the back behind the front passenger. Here business execs can kick off shoes and enjoy a multiple-setting heated foot massage on a flip-down footrest.
Between the seats is a wide centre console housing a removable remote control with an OLED display (the latest in hi-res colour touchscreen tech). This control is used to adjust ambient lighting, HD Matrix reading lights, seat massage functions, individual TV screens, and to make phone calls.
Up front the dashboard design has taken a much more minimalist approach (it’s a bit Volvo-esque in our opinion), and to do so Audi has done away with the MMI rotary control and trackpad familiar to all other models.
The A8 gets the first touchscreen centre display ever in an Audi product - a 25.7cm unit which blends almost seamlessly into its full width, gloss black surround panel. This interface switches on upon entry, and not with the ignition switch as usual.
Just below the main display is a second touchscreen for comfort functions such as climate control, seat adjustments and text inputs for navigation settings. Both touchscreens can be pinched and swiped like tablet devices, and feature haptic feedback clicks just like most modern smartphones. Similarly to Porsche’s new Panamera, the air vent shutters also open and close electronically.
Audi says an array of functionality can be accessed with a new voice control system, which works with more natural speech inputs. We’ve yet to experience a voice control system in any car which understands spoken words without a glitch, but we’ll reserve judgement until we’ve tried it.
The new A8’s navigation system has also been optimised with a “self-learning” feature based on frequently driven routes. Audi has offered very little detail on this, saying only that it provides the driver with intelligent search functions - we assume this means it can learn your favourite Chinese food joint or after work hang-out spots.
Destination information is either stored on board or is downloaded from the cloud via LTE-speed internet connectivity. The car can also borrow data from other A8s on the road for things such as road hazards and traffic sign recognition, although we’re unsure if this feature is compatible with the South African market at this point.
Suspension that reads the road
Another A8 highlight is the suspension system that uses a camera to ‘read’ the road ahead and reset the suspension on each wheel individually in advance for each bump.
The camera scans the road ahead for bumps, 18 times a second, and the electronic chassis platform processes the road surface information and precisely controls all the suspension components, transmitting just the right amount of travel to each wheel just as it reaches each bump.
The fully active air suspension system can raise or lower each wheel separately, using electric actuators, and can even instantly raise one side of the car to better shield the occupants if a side collision is imminent.
What’s more, the system is self-leveling, minimising rolling during cornering and pitching during acceleration and braking, so the VIP in the back can work, surf the net or simply relax undisturbed.
Hybrid tech across the board
The suspension system gets its energy from a 48-volt electrical system, which is standard across the range, and turns all engine derivatives into so-called ‘mild hybrids’ which enables the car to coast with the engine off and recover up to 12kW of energy.
Internationally, the new A8 will be offered with five engines, the range initially kicking off with “extensively reengineered” six-cylinder 3.0 TFSI (250kW) and 3.0 TDI (210kW) units, followed shortly afterwards by 4.0 TFSI (338kW) and 4.0 TDI (320kW) V8s and a 6-litre W12 petrol engine for which Audi has yet to disclose any numbers.
Also due to follow at a later stage will be an e-tron quattro with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain that mates a 3-litre TFSI turbopetrol to a powerful electric motor to achieve system outputs of 330kW and 700Nm. According to Audi, this hybrid can cover up to 50km on electric power alone.
In SA next year
But which engines will be offered locally? Audi says the local line-up will be confirmed closer to its launch, which is scheduled for the second half of 2018.