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Feb / Mar 2018
What the Tech!

WRITER: Nicolas Shammas

The new Audi A8 is more than a luxury saloon. It’s more than a car even. What it is, is the winner of the first heat in the race to make luxury cars into smart transportation and mobility solutions.

In the battle of the German grand flagships there’s the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and then everything else. Love it or hate it, Stuttgart’s finest sells more than 100,000 examples a year worldwide and that amounts to almost as many cars as the BMW 7-series (in second) and Audi A8 (in third) combined. Yet once we take the Merc off the table, the competition becomes a lot more interesting, especially given that this new A8 carries the weight of Ingolstadt’s expectation that they can finally wrestle second place from their rivals in Munich.


The A8 interior features almost no buttons and instead presents three driver-displays: two haptic touchscreens and a ‘Virtual Cockpit’ instrument cluster.


Of course that won’t be easy to accomplish but, this time around, Audi will be doing more than its usual tactic of presenting the A8 as a low key and exclusive alternative to its German rivals and that's because it has a powerful new weapon with which to engage in battle – artificial intelligence (not that you’d know it from the car’s rather derivative exterior).

I really don’t know why Audi likes to make matryoshka dolls of its line-up, but the new A8 doesn’t just look like its stablemates – especially with a massive Q7 grille attached to its honker – it looks very similar to its predecessor too (save for a few new design flourishes like sharp bonnet creases, quattro-hinting wheel arches, a horizontal rear light bar and diamond-shaped tailpipes). Nevertheless, just as we discovered with Doha’s Mondrian hotel in this issue, you simply mustn’t judge a book by its cover and while the all-new A8 may be unadventurous from without, from within, it has taken a gigantic leap.


The long wheelbase model offers rear passengers two 5.7-inch tablets, among other goodies.


That leap was to develop the car around cutting-edge artificial intelligence using a powerful suite of technologies, including cameras, laser scanners and ultrasonic sensors that act in unison, and make this the first car with Level 3 self-driving autonomy, as stipulated by the Society of Automotive Engineers. (For your information, SAE’s classification begins at zero, for conventional cars where the driver has no assistance, and ends with Level 5, where the car doesn't even need a steering wheel or a driver.) In essence, what that means is, unlike Tesla's Autopilot, which is a Level 2 feature that executes steering as well as acceleration and deceleration, Audi’s system goes a step further by being capable of controlling the A8 in all situations, including merging on to a motorway and driving in stop-and-go traffic. In short, the driver doesn’t even need to pay attention anymore. But, before you start planning on napping while driving to work, you should be aware of two key factors: the first is that this so-called Traffic Jam Pilot (TJP) will only work at speeds of up to 60 km/h, and second, it still requires the driver to take over if the system gets confused or fails. Then again, there’s actually a third and much greater issue and that is that SAE Level 3 hasn’t actually been legalised by any country in the world yet. “What?!” I hear you say. Indeed. So, what Audi has done is move the goalposts and score a worldie, without even waiting for the ref to inspect the pitch, let alone start the game. When I asked Audi’s Head of Automated Driving, Mirko Reuter, how much money they had ploughed into this expensive gamble, he avoided giving me a direct answer but he did say that they were confident certain countries in Europe (like Germany) and certain states in the US (like Florida) look like they might legalise Level 3 within the coming 12 months (presumably his fingers and toes were all crossed). He also stated that, “revolutions don’t happen overnight.”


The A8 gets optional laser headlights (which double the range of the high beam), and perfectly uniform OLED rear lights that start up with a spectacular 


But not all of this hard work has gone to waste because Level 3 artificial intelligence, or rather Audi Intelligence (AI), comprises two very cool features besides the TJP, which should prove just as useful, and they’re legal right now. They are Parking Pilot and Remote Garage Pilot, and what they do is allow you to get out of your car and then instruct it, via an app on your phone, to go and park itself. It even works the other way too, so you can summon your car at the press of a button. I tried and it works a charm. Moreover, I even got out a stopwatch and timed how quickly I could park the car versus AI and the difference was negligible, which leads me to believe this will become a beloved system, particularly for mothers who wish to get their kids out of the car before parking in a tight spot, or perhaps even playboys who wish to take a seat with their date at a curb-side restaurant and not waste time parallel parking.



Another ingenious benefit of having all those AI cameras and lasers continually monitoring your surrounding environment is that it will detect an imminent side collision and lift the A8 on the side where it believes the impact will happen (so the other car will hit the ultra-solid sills, instead of softer parts of the door). What's more, it also monitors the road surface and proactively preps the suspension via instant electric actuators at every wheel. The result is that you barely feel bumps at all and instead glide along with imperious serenity.

But the A8’s internal serenity isn’t just down to clever artificial intelligence, the interior is also beautifully put together, displays gorgeous detailing, has a library level of quietness, and is iPhone-esque in its simplicity. Interestingly, it turns out they actually benchmarked the iPhone when they were developing the new interface, which replaces almost all tactile controls for a pair of large haptic touchscreens (the upper one dedicated to the GPS, infotainment and systems selection and the lower one for ventilation controls).


The AI system runs on a sophisticated 48-volt, water-cooled electrical system that technically makes the A8 a mild-hybrid electric vehicle.


I liked the new A8 a lot and I’m not usually much of an Audi enthusiast. My only gripe would be that I never got to try the more interesting engines. (The car I was given at the launch was the base 340hp, single-turbo 3-litre V6-engined model.) We were told there's a 460hp twin-turbo 4-litre V8 coming soon, as well as a 449hp V6 plug-in hybrid but if you're after the Bespoke-worthy S8 and W12 models then you'll need to be patient. Nevertheless, in the case of this new A8, I told myself not to get too caught up with the conventional way of judging cars and in retrospect I’d go a step further and say, you shouldn’t even think of the A8 as a car – it’s more than that. As the model’s new sales brochure states: “The new Audi A8 grants you the freedom to concentrate on the essentials. The freedom to spend valuable time with your loved ones – instead of being distracted by trivialities.”

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