The 2019 Audi A8 could be the first car on U.S. roads to deliver Level 3 self-driving capability, but U.S. lawmakers will have the final say.
The new A8 made its debut on July 11 in Barcelona, long before an on-sale date in 2018.
Audi has let technology do the talking for the new A8. The exterior shape of the new car has progressed only mildly from the previous-generation car. The most notable changes amount to a wider trapezoidal grille bracketed by larger air intakes and slimmer LED headlights, a profile with two shoulder lines that nearly intersect at the back of the rear door, and a slim set of taillights that span the width of the car. All telegraph a sober executive-sedan mission statement.
Audi will sell both standard- and long-wheelbase versions, but in the States, we’ll only get the long-wheelbase car.
The A8’s interior tips off drivers on the radical changes wrought with the new A8. Like the Porsche Panamera, the new A8 pares down its cockpit and removes dozens of buttons and switches, and replaces them with touch-sensitive surfaces and digital displays. Along a wide horizontal band, Audi layers in high-resolution screens in the gauge cluster, and in a dual-screen arrangement at the center of the dash. The upper screen displays output from navigation and infotainment services; the lower screen serves as the interface for functions such as climate control. The former touch-sensitive puck system has been ditched, as the A8 goes all-in with touch and swipe.
Plug-in displaces W-12
Previous versions of the A8 were built around an aluminum frame and clad with aluminum body panels. The 2019 A8 blends in more materials for a lighter-weight body that puts pounds back on with new electrification hardware.
Audi designed the new A8’s body on its MLB architecture, which means a front-drive orientation, though all American A8s will be sold with all-wheel drive. The core structure remains aluminum, but steel, carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, and magnesium now have a role in reducing weight and increasing body stiffness, as they do in the Cadillac CT6.
Those weight-saving touches allow Audi to fit all A8s with at least mild-hybrid batteries and motors, so that all models will be electrified. In A8 sedans without a plug-in capability, a motor-generator aids the internal-combustion engine by contributing power during heavy acceleration or launch, and makes a wider range of stop/start operation possible. It also permits the A8 to switch off its engine and decouple the drivetrain at highway speeds, under light operating loads. It regains electric power during braking.
The system will be applied first in the U.S.-market A8 to a 3.0-liter turbo-6 with about 340 horsepower net. Later, it’ll also be used in tandem with a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 with about 460 hp net. Within a couple of model years, the A8 will add a plug-in hybrid model that couples the V-6 with a different electric motor and more batteries, for a total of 449 hp. That A8 L e-tron will also be fitted with a wireless charging system, and will offer up to 30 miles of electric-only driving range.
All-wheel drive and air springs
The A8’s new 48-volt electrical system can deliver the jolt needed for what Audi describes as a fully active suspension. The car uses a camera at each corner to scan and describe the road ahead to the car’s computing brain, 18 times a second. Air springs and adaptive dampers couple with actuators that can raise and lower each wheel individually, as the road surface dictates.
The suspension has programmed modes that allow the car to lean more or less, depending on the comfort level chosen.
The system also communicates with safety hardware to mitigate accidents and injuries. If the car senses an imminent side impact at more than 15 mph, the suspension rises so that the collision happens at a more structurally stiff part of the car–its sills and floor pan.
Audi also will fit some A8 sedans with rear-wheel steering, with actuators capable of 5 degrees of movement, twice that of some systems. At low speeds that cuts its turning circle dramatically; the steering effect diminishes then disappears as speeds rise. The A8’s electric power steering has a variable ratio, and its all-wheel-drive system can be fitted with a rear differential to divide torque between the rear wheels.
Level 3, and beyond?
The array of technology in the new A8 includes more sophisticated sensors that will permit the car to operate at Level 3 autonomy where it’s legal, Audi says.
Level 2 autonomy, offered today by many automakers, allows limited stints of car-assisted steering, braking, and acceleration. Drivers must take control at frequent intervals and are considered responsible for the car’s behavior. At Level 3, the car is considered to be in control in specific situations–when road quality and driving conditions permit–with the driver responsible for taking over control when the environment changes. (At Level 4, the driver would only take control in extreme situations; at Level 5, the car will be in control at all times.)
In the A8, the Level 3 network of laser sensors, radar sensors, and cameras can take control of the car at speeds of up to 37 mph and can stay in control until the car senses a change such as higher speed limits, degraded road quality, or extreme weather. At that point, at least 10 seconds of warning will be given for the driver to retake control. The system also can handle parking maneuvers. Level 3 is not currently legal on U.S. roads, but a variety of laws at the federal and state level have been proposed. Audi will confirm the availability of the optional system as the law permits.
Drivers will engage the system via a console switch, one of the few remaining on the A8’s center console. Nearly all secondary controls have been moved to touch control, with big display screens and haptic feedback taking the place of functions from radio tuning to seat-heat selection. The new screens are pressure-sensitive as well; deeper commands, such as cycling through different levels of seat heat, are as simple as pressing more firmly on an icon.
Touch input has improved over the previous puck-based system. The entire lower screen has become a touch-sensitive pad that accepts handwriting input, in lowercase letters or cursive, even letters written on top of each other in succession. The A8 also accepts a much wider range of voice commands, from a more robust on-board database and from cloud-based speech recognition accessed through its on-board data connection and concierge service.
There’s more in the way of custom trim, finer leather and wood, and high-end audio, but Audi still has yet to finalize the American-market pricing and packaging.
EPA fuel economy ratings and final prices will be announced early next year, before the 2019 Audi A8 goes on sale, late in the spring.
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