BARCELONA, Spain – “A brand is always a promise,” proclaimed Audi CEO Rupert Stadler in front of more than 2,000 journalists and friends of the four rings from across the globe who gathered in this vibrant, historic Spanish city for the first-ever Audi Summit.
Indeed, Audi execs made a lot of promises during the dazzling, multimillion dollar, multimedia light show and car choreography exercise hosted by “Big Bang Theory” actor Kunal Nayyar. Promises to lead in the development of artificial intelligence, advanced powertrains, autonomous driving. Promises to listen to its customers, to over deliver on the expectations of what a premium brand should be.
The unquestioned star of the summit was the all-new 2019 Audi A8, a car that Audi proclaimed as the vanguard vehicle of its future, a groundwork-laying machine. During its part of the big show, a full-size A8 model attached to a giant robotic arm hurtled across the screen as its attributes were hyped. When the digitized smoke cleared and the parade of platitudes about it from the top dogs was over, it was time to dive into the deep end of the pool to see what the new Audi flagship is all about, to get up close and personal with it from stem to stern. Here are some of the key highlights about the new A8 and, by extension, where Audi cars are headed in the near future.
Autonomy is (Almost) Here
Audi is making a huge bet on autonomous technology — aren’t they all? — and the 2019 A8’s 12 ultrasonic sensors, five radar devices, six cameras, and the front-mounted laser scanner (a first for any automaker) that stitches together a 154-degree view of the road ahead are the building blocks that will allow the A8 to be one of the most advanced autonomous cars on the market when it arrives next year. A dizzying array of standard and available assist and safety features (41 in all) uses that gear to keep the car from getting in a crash or to park it in a space or in your garage remotely using the MyAudi app. But the biggest headliner is what Audi calls its AI traffic jam pilot. (You’re going to start hearing a lot about Audi AI in the future. It’s in essence becoming its own sub-brand.) While Audi says it is a Level 3 autonomous system, which generally means the driver can relinquish control of the car but has to be fully prepared to regain control at all times, Audi says when a driver turns on traffic jam pilot they are no longer in control of the car and do not need to be ready to regain control until prompted to do so.
An advanced adaptive cruise feature, Traffic Jam Pilot works at speeds of up to 37 mph and allows the driver to completely tune out as the car takes over steering, braking, and gas on freeways and roads with a clear divide (so no yellow line scenarios). When the system is about to shut off for any reason, it will audibly and with lights make the driver aware of the need to take over in 10 seconds. The car cannot change lanes while the system is activated. Audi officials we spoke with said that the automaker is prepared to assume liability if the system malfunctions. But you guessed it: There are issues. At this point, only Florida expressly allows autonomous driving of this nature. Audi is engaging federal and state regulators to see what can be done, so it won’t be available in the U.S. until they get the all clear. Given the low speed at which the system is available and the other restrictions, it will be limited in application regardless, but it’s an intriguing development as the inexorable march to an autonomous future continues. Stay tuned.
Let there be (laser) light
Audi has long been on the forefront of lighting technology, and the 2019 Audi A8 is a tour de force in this regard. The headlamps are a combination of three elements: an HD Matrix LED headlight, a laser element, and an LED light bar that also acts as a turn signal. The HD Matrix piece is the main element, with two rows of high intensity LEDs (32 in all) that shine brighter or dimmer automatically using the car’s GPS and other factors. The system anticipates where the LEDs should shine brightest — when heading around corners, for example.
The X-shaped laser element uses only one laser now, as opposed to three in previous Audi laser-light applications. Laser lights are just becoming available for the U.S. market although there is a catch as the A8’s laser high beams are limited to a set distance by federal regulations. (The unit on the European market A8 for example will shine a considerable distance longer.) At the rear is an OLED setup that “comes alive,” according to Audi lighting expert Stephan Berlitz. Turn on the A8, and the lights push out from the center and wrap around the width of the rear and turn down and back inward. Turn off the car, and they retreat back to the center. Very cool stuff. (Berlitz said they got a standing ovation from dealers when they demoed it.) Turn signals light up in a sequential manner. The OLED elements themselves are compact and thin, with one piece of each element that’s 200 times thinner than a human hair, according to Berlitz. The rear lights employ 135 diodes in all, pretty impressive stuff.
Audi has made massive changes to how the 2019 A8’s cockpit and center console is laid out. The area itself has been designed with a wraparound effect and either piano or several wood trim options that further dress up the space. There are three screens in all that dominate the action. The first is one that has become familiar, the Audi virtual cockpit, replaces the traditional instrument panel with a digital display that can be configured in multiple ways. Its 12.3 inch screen is rendered in full HD and is powered in part by a NVIDIA computer unit. You’re not going to find any buttons in the center stack in this car, as two high-resolution screens with haptic touch capacity and pinch and swipe ability now dominate. The top screen is the main infotainment area that controls navigation, vehicle functions, and other entertainment features, with the bottom screen primarily used for climate control. It’s a gamble of sorts because the loss of buttons and haptic functionality has drawn criticism when utilized by other automakers. The demonstration models worked very well and responded instantly to our gentle touching, but it remains to be seen how customers will embrace it. There’s also an optional head-up display, and Audi says its voice recognition and handwriting features are vastly improved. Additionally, Audi interior designers are really proud of the retractable air vents, that like the rear lights “come alive” when the climate control is active. Watch out, this car is alive! It’s like your own personal HAL 2000.
As a high end, executive cruiser, it’s important for the A8 to be comfortable and feature rich in the back seat area, and the new Audi flagship has several elements designed to amp up the creature comforts. The seats are more comfortable than before and include a new headrest with a leather “kokon” that Audi says is as soft as other competing offerings that use a pillow. The seats recline and have massaging elements, including a foot massage feature that’s available for the long wheelbase model. In the center arm-rest area is a small, removable tablet device that controls seating features and an LED overhead light bank that can be moved and intensity changed with touch of a finger. Available are two removable, Android-based, 10-inch tablets that can control various vehicle functions and are internet-connected using the A8’s LTE hotspot functionality.
Audi’s AI active suspension system has been developed to help smooth out the A8’s ride in part by using the car’s myriad sensors and radar to predict how best to handle the imperfections before it rolls over them. The active suspension’s electric actuators, featuring a small motor for each wheel, are powered by Audi’s 48-volt mild hybrid system and can independently move any wheel up or down in part by using the car’s airbag setup. The system can also employ the car’s GPS to predict cornering situations and will attempt to keep the car flat in part by deploying its titanium anti-roll bars. Cornering is also aided by the car’s available rear-wheel steering feature. The predictive nature of the system can even anticipate when the A8 is about to be in a side impact crash (as part of the car’s available 360-degree safety system) and can raise the side of the car by 8 millimeters (0.3 inches) to put it in a better position to withstand the hit. The suspension’s multilink setup at the front and rear are constructed of aluminum alloy in an effort to further strengthen and lighten the car.
One of the elements of the new A8 that won’t change all that much (yet) is what motivates it. The main powerplants remain as the 3.0-liter turbo six (340 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque) and 4.0-liter twin-turbo eight (460 horsepower), mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, although there have been updates to the engines and the transmission. There is also the stonking 6.0-liter W-12 engine with 585 horsepower and a 3.0-liter diesel, but it’s doubtful we’ll see them here in the U.S. The car’s Quattro system manages a 40:60 front-to-rear torque split in normal situations but can move power front or aft depending on the situation. A sport differential is also available for A8 drivers looking for more dynamic shove. All A8’s will come with the brand’s aforementioned 48-volt system, which acts as a mild hybrid system. It controls the car’s belt alternator starter, allowing the car to coast on the system’s power in steady-state driving from 34 to 90 mph and the stop/start system to engage from 13 mph. It also stores energy from brake regeneration and powers the active suspension. Down the line the Audi A8 e-tron plug-in hybrid will become available, utilizing the 3.0-liter, an electric motor housed in the transmission and a 14.1 kWh lithium ion battery pack. Range on EV power alone is said to be about 31 miles, and it will be wireless charging capable if you want to tear up your garage floor and install a wireless charging setup.
It’s fair to say that the A8’s new exterior duds aren’t exactly revolutionary in nature, but there are several cues that move the car’s design forward. The lighting out front and especially at the rear offers some wow factor. The stance has been inclined slightly at the rear, and yes, according to Audi lead designer Marc Lichte, the car has a “coupe-like roof with a fast C-pillar,” although rear headroom is said to be improved. The car’s beltline has been lowered and now bisects the door handles, and its slightly bulging wheel wells are meant to signify its Quattro system. Audi’s signature Singleframe hexagonal grille treatment has been massaged, with more chrome and an evolved shape. It’s a stately, reserved look we’ve come to expect from Audi. Daring, it’s not. Well executed, it is.
Audi has put a huge amount of effort into the 2019 Audi A8, as it should. This is its flagship, the car that will in many ways act as the standard bearer for its future. It is taking some big risks in some areas, breaking new ground in others. But it is also familiar as well. As Stadler made clear in his speech, Audi is a brand that its customers must trust if it wants to be successful. To that end, plotting a course that accentuates its technological leadership while at the same time remaining true to what its customers have come to expect from the brand is what the Audi Summit was all about and what the A8 is about as well.