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A car that listens to you and drives itself may be every commuter’s dream

A car that listens to you and drives itself may be every commuter’s dream – and that’s exactly what Audi intends to deliver when its superlative A8 goes on sale next year. Wynter Murdoch reports.

Audi’s upcoming A8 – premiered in Barcelona, Spain earlier this month – contains a plethora of new automotive technology.

From its space-frame chassis, lightweight construction, 48-volt electrical system and hybrid drivetrain to its driver assistance systems and ability to understand the environment through which it is travelling, the car embodies all that is at the forefront of vehicle development.

Billed as the first production model in the world to be equipped with Level 3 autonomy – which means it can drive itself – the A8 retains all the luxury features which made its forerunners famous, but the advancement in electrification and digitisation on a broad front sets it apart from equally sumptuous rivals.

Now in its fourth generation, the flagship model in Audi’s sedan range features new design language, an innovative touchscreen operating concept and a systematically electrified drive. 
Stylistically defining – the derivative heralds a new design era for the entire brand – the car embodies powerful, sporty elegance.

Proportions are well-balanced – long bonnet, set back cabin, short boot – with muscular flares on the wheel arches helping to give visual expression to the vehicle’s quattro drive. And that’s not the only distinctive touch. 

According to Audi, the model proclaims its identity both day and night by drawing on striking HD Matrix LED headlights that incorporate lasers and, at the rear, an LED light strip combined with OLED clusters that produce unique animations as the driver approaches or leaves the car.

Inside, the cabin is lounge-like – appearing to be much bigger than that of the predecessor, especially in length – while the range of equipment is extensive, with most of the detailing radiating superlative quality. For instance, even the shutters on the air vents are electrically operated.

At the rear, passengers can control an array of functions such as ambient lighting, HD Matrix reading lights and seat massage levels, plus they can make phone calls via a separate operating unit. 

At the front, digitisation has replaced the familiar rotary pushbutton and touchpad of the predecessor, controls operated through a large, centrally mounted touchscreen which, when switched off, is almost invisible in a high-gloss black surround.

The user interface appears as soon as a door is opened. Using a fingertip, the driver can control the system by touching glass-look operating buttons on the central display – which click to confirm the instruction – or through a smaller, secondary touchpad located on the centre console. 

The combination of acoustic and tactile feedback – along with the use of common touch gestures such as swiping – is said to make the new touch response system intuitive and easy to use.

The A8 can also engage in intelligent conversation. The driver can activate an array of functions using voice control. Information on destinations and media is available on board, or is delivered from the cloud, while the extensive connectivity system includes traffic sign recognition and hazard information – innovative services that draw on swarm intelligence from other cars on the road to warn the driver of conditions ahead.

The navigation system is self-learning, based on routes just driven while, for Europe at least, mapping incorporates highly detailed 3D models of major cities.

Audi claims the A8 is the first production automobile to have been developed specially for automated driving. Using what the company calls Traffic Jam Pilot, the car will drive itself at speeds of up to 60km/h provided the oncoming carriageway is separated by a physical barrier. 

The system is activated using an AI button on the centre console and manages starting, accelerating, steering and braking. The driver can remove hands from the steering wheel and focus on a different activities – such as watching the on-board TV, reading or texting messages – while zFAS, the company’s term for its autopilot, continuously computes data obtained from a bank of radar and ultrasonic sensors, cameras and laser scanners, to keep the car reactive to anything in its path.

But that’s not all. According to Audi, the car’s active suspension system revisits the very limits of what was thought to be physically possible. Depending on road conditions and the driving situation, the air-based system is capable of raising or lowering each wheel separately with electric actuators, smoothing out bumps and depressions.

Thanks to the front camera, imperfections are detected long before the car reaches them and, at the precise moment, the suspension adjusts accordingly. “This flexibility imparts the driving characteristic with huge latitude – ranging from the smooth ride comfort of a classic luxury sedan to the dynamism of a sports car. 

“Also, in combination with Pre-Sense 360°, the system can raise the car with lighting speed if there is an impending lateral collision, positioning the sturdiest part of the vehicle in the path of the oncoming projectile and reducing the potential consequences of the accident for all occupants.” 

As far as powertrains go, initial models will be equipped with the option of extensively re-engineered, turbocharged V6 engines – 3,0-litre, diesel-fuelled units or similarly sized TFSI petrol plants. The diesel develops 210kW and the petrol version 250kW.

Two eight-cylinder versions – a 4,0-litre TDI with 320kW and a 4,0-litre TFSI which produces 338kW – are expected to follow, along with a 6,0-litre W12 version.

All five engines operate in conjunction with a belt alternator starter (BAS), which is the nerve center of the 48-volt electrical system. This mild hybrid technology (MHEV, mild hybrid electric vehicle) enables the car to coast with the engine switched off, and to restart smoothly. 

It also has an extended start/stop function and an energy recovery output of up to 12kW. The combined effect of these measures is to bring down the fuel consumption of the already efficient engines even further – by as much as 0,7 litres per 100km in real driving conditions, according to Audi’s claims.

Further, the start/stop function differs markedly from previous systems – it incorporates predictive convenient starting, which means that as soon as the vehicle in front moves, the A8’s engine will start even if the brake is still being applied. 

There’s a lot more I could write about the new car’s features. Safe to say that, while a vehicle that listens to you and drives itself may be every commuter’s dream – especially if you envisage yourself watching TV in sumptuous luxury while travelling to work – realising that aim may be a lot closer than you think.


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