“I don’t think internal combustion engines are on the way out — I think we have a lot more potential left,” Audi’s engine development engineer Matthias Honzen told me at the launch of the company’s new A8 flagship saloon in Barcelona. So we can start with the good news.
Honzen went on: “As internal combustion engineers, I think we will have plenty of things to do.”
Not too much, mind you. In the last century or so of cars the power source and its concept hasn’t changed at all. Stagnation is comfort, still, change is coming. But don’t worry, there’ll be mood lighting and foot massagers…
Honzen and the petrolheads are fighting a losing battle. If not this year then the one after, electric cars will reach a million annual sales for the first time. By 2030 they’ll have about 20 per cent of the global market. From there the number will explode. Then the day will come when the electric cars outnumber fossil-powered cars, and the petrol-powered car will be a minority shunned from the world’s autonomous highways by Artificial Intelligence.
And really it is just that, wisdom. The week before Audi’s A8 launch, I went to Bosch’s research and development centre in Germany to check out how the car of tomorrow is getting along (you can read story in the next issue).
There, below the steep banking of a high-speed oval test track where a Tesla was busy parking itself, I put the shunning scenario forward to Stephan Stass, who has a fancy designation at Bosch starting with ‘senior vice-president’ but is, in short, the AI boss.
You can’t very well ride a horse down the highway these days, so I asked Stass whether internal-combustion cars will one day, too, be barred from the very roads they laid.
“I can imagine that something like this could happen,” he said. “I am convinced of that because there is one fundamental thing, and this is avoiding accidents. Currently over one million people die in road accidents every year. One million people… This is an unbelievable number. I think if we can eliminate this by automated driving, then… It could be that by the year 2030, or 2035, nobody is allowed to drive on their own any more. It could be, nobody knows… But the value in that would be that accidents would disappear completely.”
And so the all-new fourth-generation Audi A8 is getting a head start.
Level 3 Autonomy
The Ingolstadt-camaker says its new A8 is the first production car in the world developed with hands-off-the-wheel Level 3 autonomous capability. That’s AI among us. Systems like the traffic jam pilot can drive the car without the driver holding the wheel at speeds of up to 60kph, provided there are clear markings and lane dividers. And provided that it’s not illegal to take your hands off the wheel, which it is, meaning the tech will be available at launch if not usable. Before the system Audi calls revolutionary starts revolutionising, all the statutory framework needs to be clarified in each market and this process will take time. Which means Audi will be introducing the A8’s autonomous tech step-by-step as it becomes approved.
The all-new design — if you see it up close it does actually look all-new — introduces Audi’s styling language going forward across the line-up. Compared to the current third-gen A8, the car looks longer and lower, because it is, and like all big Audis it’s still burdened with acres of front overhang. I asked exterior designer Amor Vaya about it.
“It would be from an engineering point of view, having a big overhang,” says Vaya. “Everything we try to do as designers… if delivered the perfect package, we would always create a really nice car. In the case of this car Audi is creating a balance between driving dynamics, between passenger space, technology, and all these kind of things inside the car. And as a designer we always try to change the feeling of the car where we can to counter these limitations.
“For this car,” Vaya explains, “we have a very upright nose and a very fast tail, so this is already drawing the customer’s eye away from this overhang.”
It does look striking though, and at 5,170mm long you will notice it. The A8 L long-wheelbase model adds another 130mm.
On sight the interior is the biggest departure from current Audis and the carmaker went after physical switchgear and buttons with a vengeance. It’s all gone, replaced by swathes of clean surfaces, shiny black so the many screens blend in. The driver’s instrument panel is all digital, a 10.1in screen takes centre place, and another touchscreen replaces the traditional rotary knob and switch panel for automatic climate control and such, located on the centre tunnel console. Even the back gets an OLED smartphone-type removable gadget. The car’s a tech show, of sensors, cameras, radars, lasers, Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging, the first one in a production car), and a quad-core Nvidia processor that runs the show 50 times faster than Audi’s first-gen MIB (Modular Infotainment System) launched in 2012.
At launch Audi will offer the new A8 in both standard and long-wheelbase form with the option of a 3.0-litre V6 rated at 340bhp and a 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 rated at 460bhp. Later on Audi will release the flagship, an A8 L with a twelve-cylinder engine stuffed in the front. You know they have the room. It’s a 6.0-litre twin-turbocharged W12 shared with another Volkswagen Group brand Bentley, and it develops 585 horsepower and 800Nm of torque from 1,300rpm keeping it there to 5,000rpm. With all-wheel drive, an eight-speed transmission and an optional electronic limited-slip differential, the all-aluminum A8 won’t slouch.
Audi’s fully active suspension system in the new A8 is capable of adjusting the height of each wheel separately thanks to getting its energy from the car’s 48-volt electrical system. And it is a lot of energy required — the system works with an electrical motor dedicated for each wheel, and a little rotary transmission for each with a titanium bar that exerts 1,100Nm of pressure on the suspension to get the desired height in lightning speed.
Audi Middle East says the new A8 will arrive in our market from Q2 next year, the far end of Q2. The standard model will start from Dh380,000 or thereabout, and the A8 L will start from around Dh400,000.