The new-generation 2018 Audi A8 limousine — its answer to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series — doubles as a technology figurehead for the brand, and its comfort-focused flagship.
There’s a lot that’s new, very little that isn’t, and even aspects that change the game completely. And while we’re yet to drive it, we did attend the first Audi Summit this week in Barcelona and had a quick look before it hits the world’s roads later in the year.
You can read a more detailed news story about the car, but here we’ve gathered our thoughts and laid out what our first impressions painted as The Good, and The Bad.
Audi AI traffic jam pilot
Audi AI is the company’s umbrella term for driver-assist technologies, which it’ll be developing for the entire Volkswagen Group.
The A8 premieres a set of software and hardware called traffic jam pilot, significant because it’s the first road vehicle designed to offer Level 3 autonomy, meaning it’s capable of completely taking over from the driver in certain situations, and handing back control when it deems it necessary.
Audi believes this differentiates the A8 from Level 2 offerings currently in-market, even advanced offerings from rivals such as Mercedes-Benz and Tesla, which tend to have time limits on their assist technologies.
All told the A8 has 12 ultrasonic sensors on the front, sides and rear; four 360-degree cameras on the front, rear and exterior mirrors; one front camera on the top edge of the windscreen; four mid-range radars at the vehicle’s corners; one long-range radar on the front; one laser scanner on the front; and one infrared camera on the front.
Information is processed by a new CPU called zFAS.
Though the opt-in system only works on roads where a physical barrier separates the two carriageways – at speeds below 60km/h in peak-hour traffic – it can manage starting, accelerating, steering, braking, and vehicles cutting in front.
As soon as the speed rises above 60km/h or the traffic clears, the traffic jam pilot informs the driver they need to take charge of driving once again. If the driver ignores the prompt and the subsequent warnings, the car pulls over when safe and stops.
There’s a negative to all this, though, which we will get to.
AI active suspension
Beyond the five-link setups front and rear, aluminium construction and air suspension, the A8 has a party trick to bring to the table – it has a fully active, electro-mechanically operated suspension system.
Each wheel has an electric motor supplied by the car’s 48-volt primary electrical system. In each case there is also a transmission, a rotary tube housing a titanium roll bar, and a lever that exerts up to 1100Nm on the suspension via a coupling rod.
How does this manifest? The load can be increased or reduced individually on all four wheels. So if the driver selects dynamic mode, the car’s roll angles are roughly halved compared with the normal status. In comfort mode, the body floats more smoothly.
Beyond this, in an impending lateral collision at more than 25km/h the suspension actuators raise the body on the side exposed to the danger by up to 80mm within half-a-second, to present a more resistant section of the body to the other party, since the side sills and floor structure take a large portion of the impact forces.
A key plank in the road to automated driving is making vehicles and infrastructure talk.
The A8 reports speed limits that it has detected with the on-board camera to a server in the cloud. The server processes this information and sends it to other Audi drivers who might benefit from it.
The same applies to the hazard information service. Cars warn one another about accidents, broken-down vehicles, slippery road surfaces or impaired visibility. The system does this by analysing multiple parameters, such as the in-car electronics, data from the rain and light sensors, the headlights and the operating mode of the windshield wipers.
The information basis for the new car-to-X services is maps supplied by a data platform that Audi is continuously updating and expanding in partnership with the BMW Group and Daimler AG. Enemies pairing up…
Standard MHEV tech
The A8 will launch with two V6 engines, a petrol and a diesel. Two V8 engines will follow, as will a W12. Then there’ll be a 330kW petrol-electric (PHEV) model with a 50km pure electric range, as well as a higher-performance S8 derivative.
The interesting part is that all models with internal combustion will use mild hybridisation (MHEV), based on a newly developed 48V primary electrical system.
The 48V system is fed by a belt alternator starter (BAS) connected to the engine’s crankshaft by the belt drive. A lithium-ion battery positioned beneath the luggage compartment floor serves as the storage unit.
Thanks to the higher voltage (over a 12V setup) the new A8 can coast along silently in a speed range from 55 through 160km/h, drive as an EV for 40 seconds, and can recover up to 12kW of power from brake energy.
The ‘relaxation seat’
The occupant behind the front passenger can recline their cushy chair, rest their feet on an electrically folding surface on the backrest of the front passenger seat, and have their feet warmed and massaged with multiple settings.
There are three power levels, two programs and three foot sizes to choose from, also providing full-surface reflexology. Obviously the seat-backs and bases are also heated/ventilated, and have a massage function.
The traffic jam pilot actually isn’t available
The low-speed Level 3 autonomy is great, but Audi and other brands are a step or three ahead of law-makers.
The main issue is a legislative one. No country currently allows Level 3 automation, though Germany will soon. In the US, the laws are State-based, there’s no framework in China, and Australia is miles behind. So right now the system, while viable, remains theoretical until law-makers get off their arses.
In other words, you won’t be buying an A8 with the AI button and functionality installed yet, and it cannot be either temporarily disabled, or retro-fitted.
No PHEV electric option at launch
The 330kW PHEV with 4.9sec 0-100km/h time and a 50km range seems cool, but given Audi’s positioning as an industry leader in digital connectivity and green tech, the fact the car launches as a V6 only for a short time seems odd.
There’s also no word on an A8 with a fully electric drivetrain which, while no surprise, seems a shame. Full-electric Audis with Tesla-matching ranges are right around the corner but nevertheless, the A8 EV would have been a game changer.
The interior is incredible in so many ways, with a reductive design that flicks the old rotary dial and instead offers a pair of super-responsive touchscreens that offer reassuring tactile feedback, in tandem with the Virtual Cockpit digital instrumentation behind the wheel.
There are also gorgeous materials through much of the car, from various types of wood and leather options to the suede head-lining, plus advanced voice control, self-learning on-board navigation, hugely powerful control hub and a Bang and Olufsen surround-sound system.
Yet there was one thing that drove us nuts. The A8s on show in Barcelona were beneath spotlights and had hundreds of the world’s press pawing over them, yet the shiny black plastics and the touchscreens picked up more fingerprint smudges, dust and scratches than any car we’ve ever seen. In the real world it might drive you nuts.
The new A8 is handsome sure, from its massive grille, muscular proportions, LED lighting all over, and squat stance. Yet, it’s also slab-sided, and doesn’t represent the “dawning of a new design era” that Audi claims.
The back story goes like this: when Marc Lichte took the reins at Audi design three-and-a-bit years ago he promised the new A8 – his team’s first clean-sheet project – would set Audi on a bolder new path. Then came the Prologue concept, which looked brilliant.
Yet – and we understand the A8’s conservative demographic – what we get is a car that looks like another Audi: handsome, refined, crisp and very, very safe.