At a bombastic event in Barcelona in front of 2,000 people, Audi unveiled its all-new A8 flagship sedan, with a next-generation interior and world-first self-driving technology.
The 2018 A8 is a tour-de-force of design and technology, a showcase meant to burnish Audi's image in the aftermath of the Dieselgate scandal.
Audi will be hoping the A8 can steal sales away from the current class-leader, the Mercedes S-Class, as well as the BMW 7 Series and Jaguar XJ. These are prestige cars, previewing features and technology that will trickle down through the rest of their brands' respective lineups.
As technically impressive as the A8 is, there's a big catch. It boasts the world's first Level 3 autonomous driving system, which would let drivers take their eyes off the road to watch TV, for example. But using such a system would be illegal in Canada, as well as most international jurisdictions, including Germany. As a result, when the A8 arrives in showrooms in the first half of 2018, it will do so without its headline technology.
Still, the A8 boasts plenty of other stand-out features. Here are the highlights.
The cabin of the A8 is all-new and supremely futuristic. Nearly all buttons have been replaced by two giant touchscreens that are stacked in the centre of the dashboard. Mattijs van Tuijl, the designer responsible for the A8's interior, said we should expect some version of this cockpit in all future Audi models.
Touchscreens are necessary – how else could you control the 1,000-plus functions and settings in the new A8? – but they can be distracting to use while driving. Audi has added new technology that should make these giant screens safer and easier to use. The screens feature haptic feedback, which means when you push a button on the screen, you feel a click as if it were a physical button. The screens also use technology similar to Apple's Force Touch. You have to exert a bit of force to make a selection. This ensures you won't accidentally push a button if the car goes over a bump and your finger grazes the wrong bit of the screen.
When the top screen is off, it blends into the surrounding glossy-black dashboard, which is nice, except that all fingerprint smudges then become visible.
During a brief demo, the new touschscreen-based infotainment system felt just as quick and responsive as any Apple smartphone or tablet.
Active air suspension
We've seen lots of new technology aimed at making a car's ride more comfortable, but none has so far been able to completely smooth out Canada's horribly pockmarked roads. Now Audi is giving it a go. The A8 is the first car to feature electro-mechanical active suspension powered by a 48-volt electrical system.
The A8's (optional) new active suspension relies on a front-facing camera and individually-controlled electric motors on all four wheels. The camera watches the road ahead for imperfections and primes the suspension accordingly. Instead of torsion bars, the electric motors can press each individual wheel down into a pothole or raise it up over a bump. "We want to make the wheels dance, but keep the body still. That's comfort," said Joachim Schmitt, an Audi engineer who worked on the system.
Having such precise control over each wheel has other benefits, too. In Dynamic mode, the motors can change the car's balance, making the handling more oversteer-y for sportier driving. Turning into a corner, the electric motor can press the outside front wheel down into the road. Schmitt said this makes the car respond faster to inputs and feel sharper overall. A neat trick for a big luxury barge.
Wireless charging for the hybrid engine
A plug-in hybrid version of the A8 will be available in due course, but it won't be a plug-in, exactly.
If you have a garage, or even an outdoor driveway, you'll be able to install a wireless charger on the floor or in the ground. When you park the car on top of it, the charger automatically rises up to charges the car's batteries. A full charge takes four hours, and you'll never have to worry about plugging the car in.
In electric-only mode, the hybrid A8 will have a range of approximately 50 kilometres before the turbocharged V-6 gas engine kicks in. Combined, the gas and electric motors produce 449 horsepower.
48-volt electrical system
In addition to the usual 12-volt electric system found in all cars, the A8 has a 48-volt system. It powers the motors in the active suspension, and provides redundant backup power for the automated-driving systems. Without this, Level 3 and higher autonomous systems would not be possible.
The conventional alternator is replaced with a belt-driven starter-generator connected to the engine's crankshaft. The generator can recoup wasted power from the engine and store it in the battery. The 48V system allows the gas engine to shut off when the car is coasting or coming up to a red light. It can restart the engine quickly and smoothly, without the normal vibration associated with automatic start/stop systems.
Markus Hoppe, project manager for electrical systems on the A8, said the 48V system can reduce fuel consumption by up to 0.7 L/100 km.
Level 3 autonomous driving
Drivers will have to wait for the law to catch up to Audi's technology. At the moment, there's no timeframe for when Level 3 autonomous vehicles might be made legal for private purchase and use on Canadian roads. Audi may be the first to introduce this technology, but you can bet it won't be the last.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.