Every ten years or so, the motoring industry grapples with game changing, sometimes era-defining innovation. In the 50s, it was out with archaic drum brakes and in with the vastly more reliable disks that we trust to stop us today. The 80s saw the Formula 1 technology become available to the masses, with the advent of traction control on our road cars for the first time. The soundtrack to the 2000s, meanwhile, was as much the hum of the hybrid as the roar of the Bugatti Veyron’s W16, a path that eventually ushered in a world where EVs are a mass-market reality. As this decade has worn on, the dazzling spotlight of innovation has moved its gaze onto an altogether different stage. Car designers are limbering up for the most ambitious technological leap ever attempted; one that may leave the very industry they represent in an existential crisis. Autonomous driving is creeping up on us faster that we think; and here’s the biggest proof yet. Meet the new Audi A8.
At first glance, there’s little to suggest that the latest generation of the German marque’s long serving flagship is anything more than its impeccably designed, ultra-premium self. Escaping from the shadow of its archrivals the BMW 7-Series and, most notably, the practically faultless Mercedes S Class, has always been the conundrum to end all conundrums for those behind the A8. Whether they’ve found the silver bullet here remains to be seem but, in terms of styling, the deluxe saloon has received the freshen up it deserved.
Paving the way for a new era of Audi design, the arrival of the 2017 A8 is therefore a seminal moment for the brand itself. In a sense, the luxury limo’s more geometric face evokes that of the 2017 Q2 CUV, a car that finally shrugged off the spot-the-difference styling that epitomised much of the Audi line-up. The hexagonal front grille is now considerably wider than before with headlamps, tail lamps and the rear light strip equipped with striking LED Matrix laser lighting. As is customary, you can have your A8 lengthened from the standard 5.17-metre platform to the 13 cm longer A8 L extended wheelbase version.
That translates as 13 cm more interior opulence in A8 parlance. The best seat in the house is undeniable in the back – on the left to be precise. This veritable throne, an optional extra on standard trim, lavishes you with four massage settings and even a footrest that manipulates the soles of ones aching feet. Besides these podiatric delights, the rear passenger can also control an array of functions such as ambient lighting and reading lamps via a smartphone-style display housed in the centre armrest as well as making private phone calls via an integrated handset.
Up front, the new A8 dispenses with the familiar rotary pushbutton and touchpad of the outgoing model in favour of a combined 10.1-inch touchscreen display and instrument panel with barely a switch or knob in sight. A second touchscreen display on the centre console grants access to air conditioning and other creature comforts through text inputs next generation voice recognition.
So far, so reassuringly premium. However, Audi aren’t billing their new flag-bearer as the first production car developed specially for highly automated driving for nothing. Whereas speed-regulating cruise control has been around for years, the concept of fully automated steering and braking, with absolutely zero driver input takes us into to unknown territory. That, in a nutshell, is what the 2017 Audi A8 is bringing to the mass-market. Branded as ‘AI traffic jam pilot’ the car will take complete control of driving in slow-moving traffic at up to 37mph on major roads. Acceleration, steering and braking are all remotely regulated while the driver no longer needs to monitor the car at all. Audi even suggest alternative activities to keep thumbs from twiddling when they’re no longer grasping the wheel. “Why not focus on a different activity, such as watching the on-board TV?” Why not indeed.
Such a monumental upheaval will, inevitably, take quite some getting used to. And that applies to lawmakers as much as drivers. Indeed, Audi’s tacit acknowledgement that “statutory framework will need to be clarified in each individual market” testifies that, where automated driving is concerned, technology really is evolving quicker than the national laws that supposedly regulate it.
Elsewhere, the A8’s remote parking pilot does at least provide a tangible link to the here and now. Self-parking cars have been helping us to squeeze into the tightest of spaces for a few years, but the Audi AI remote garage pilot goes one step further. The considerable bulk of the new A8 can now be manoeuvred seamlessly into and out of a parking space or garage – from outside the car. It’s all thanks to the wizardry of Audi’s smartphone app, a James Bond gadget of yesteryear now very much a reality.
If, by any chance, you feel inclined to take on a bit of ‘old fashioned’ driving, the fourth generation luxury saloon will keep you snug in the corners thanks to dynamic all-wheel steering and sport differential. Active torque distribution between the rear wheels complements the standard Quattro AWD system whilst AI active suspension lowers or raises ride height based on data fed through by sensors in the chassis.
No matter how automated our cars become, sometimes you can’t beat a bit of old fashioned power. For such an advanced piece of machinery, the new A8 somewhat paradoxically retains in its locker one of what is a dying breed of colossal engines. The 6.0 litre W12 in question, a series staple since the very beginning of its life, is still the granddaddy of the range and now, more than ever, resembles something of a prehistoric monster in astronaut’s clothing. There are, of course, an array of comparatively more bite-size options on the menu. Two extensively reengineered 3.0 litre V6s are the most efficient ever to join the A8 ranks. The diesel develops 284bhp, with its petrol contemporary rated at 337bhp. An eight-cylinder TDI – a 4.0-litre with 432bhp – is also in the pipeline.
Now with enough juice for about 31 miles of electric driving, the wirelessly charged A8 L e-tron quattro makes a triumphant return to the line-up. This powerful plug-in hybrid won’t be available from launch but will link Audi’s 3.0 litre TFSI engine with an electric motor to conjure up a combined 445bhp and 516 lb-ft of instant torque.
Order books for the new Audi A8 open in September, meaning the first few UK-bound models should be here in time to take you for a ride on British roads before 2017 is out.