The 2018 Audi A8 is here, and like all German flagship sedans it looks like it will be wildly over-engineered. Among the endless luxury features in the new sedan, one stands out: Traffic Jam Pilot. Audi says this semi-autonomous mode actually lets drivers screw around and watch television instead of pay attention to the road.
Way back in 2014, Audi showed us its Prologue Concept, an ultra-luxury sedan that could theoretically take on Mercedes’ S-Class, the plutocrat’s car of choice. Now the production version of Audi’s concept car is here as the new A8. Audi says the new A8 “signals the beginning of a new design era for the entire brand,” so expect to see its wide face all over the Audi lineup.
The looks aren’t nearly as important as the features in the cabin. The most interesting of those is a little AI button on the center console, which activates Audi AI Traffic Jam Pilot. Audi says the new A8 is “the first production car to have been developed specially for highly automated driving,” and that Traffic Jam Pilot can fully take control of the car in traffic moving less than 37 mph, so long as a physical barrier separates the two carriageways.
And by “fully take control,” I mean it lets drivers totally just screw around behind the wheel. According to Audi, drivers can even watch TV:
The traffic jam pilot manages starting, accelerating, steering and braking. The driver no longer needs to monitor the car permanently. They can take their hands off the steering wheel permanently and, depending on the national laws, focus on a different activity that is supported by the car, such as watching the on-board TV.
It’s worth noting that the driver will still have to grab the controls once the system “reaches its limits,” and that the system’s capabilities will depend on the laws in each marketplace.
All of this is probably wise. For a while it was rumored that Joshua Brown was watching a movie when he was killed at the wheel of his Tesla on autopilot, the first semi-autonomous car death, though the Florida Highway Patrol’s investigation concluded that was not the case. Moreover, Brown was going at highway pace, not in low- to medium-speed traffic.
Jalopnik’s staff is unsure if it’s good for a carmaker to have such a cavalier attitude towards how much attention a driver should be paying to the road. But going off of this press release alone, it’s hard to say what Audi’s system will look like in practice. What it means for a semi-autonomous car to “reach its limits” varies a lot from manufacturer to manufacturer. (Tesla, for instance, used to let you run for minutes on end with no hands on the wheel while Mercedes needed near constant intervention.)
It’s also worth noting that the actual roll-out of the new A8's autonomous features will take time, with the automaker saying that, starting in 2018, it will “gradually be taking piloted driving functions such as parking pilot, garage pilot and traffic jam pilot into production.” Audi’s press release makes it seem like this roll-out will be involved and time-consuming process, so who knows when the U.S. will get these semi-autonomous features.
Audi also couched that a lot will need to happen before Traffic Jam Pilot becomes available to consumers:
The introduction of the Audi AI traffic jam pilot means the statutory framework will need to be clarified in each individual market, along with the country-specific definition of the application and testing of the system...In addition, a range of approval procedures and their corresponding timescales will need to be observed worldwide. Audi will therefore be adopting a step-by-step approach to the introduction of the traffic jam pilot in production models.
So this may be a while.
Audi says Traffic Jam Pilot is the first system to a laser scanner in addition to radar sensors, a front facing camera and ultrasonic sensors. The laser sends data to a Central Driver Assistance Controller, which “computes an image of the surroundings by merging the sensor data” to make sure you don’t crash into things. Because that would be bad.
On top of Traffic Jam Pilot, the new A8 will also get a Audi AI Remote Parking Pilot and AI Remote Garage Pilot, which allow owners to use a remote or smartphone to activate a mode that “autonomously [steers] the A8 into and out of a parking space or a garage.” The phone app even lets owners watch the car park itself via the A8's 360-degree cameras.
Because we’re talking about about a German flagship luxury sedan, there’s obviously much, much more, including “dynamic all-wheel steering,” which actually adjusts the front wheels’ steering ratio based on vehicle speed, and turns the rear wheels “in or against the direction of steering depending on the speed range.”
There’s also a 10.1-inch touchscreen, and a second one just above the shifter, which allows drivers to access air conditioning, send texts, and adjust other comfort-related modes.
Then there’s the optional “relaxation seat,” which is at the rear on the passenger’s side, and lets a passenger “warm and massage the soles of their feet.” On top of that, the rear passenger can use a remote control to adjust things like ambient lighting, seat massage settings, and their private telephone (rear passengers get a “separate operating unit” for the phone.)
The new ultra-luxury sedan from Audi is over 17 feet long in base form, and about 5 inches longer in A8 L trim. Both cars come with active suspension, and can be had with a 286 horsepower 3.0-liter diesel V6, a 340 horsepower 3.0-liter gas V6, a 435 horsepower 4.0-liter diesel, a 460 horsepower 4.0-liter gas V8, and a 6.0-liter W12 (Audi doesn’t mention its power figures).
All five engines will be mild hybrids fitted with 48-volt Belt starter generators. The two V8s won’t be available at launch, and neither will a plug-in version of the 3.0-liter V6 gas engine, which will be called the A8 L e-tron quattro, and will crank out 449 horsepower, and have a range of more than 31 miles all-electric.
The new over-engineered German-made A8 will be available in Germany in late 2017, and will start at 90,600 Euro for the regular A8, and 94,100 for the A8 L. Audi doesn’t mention when we’ll get the car in the U.S., or how much it costs.
But it’s only a matter of time before we see bankers and dentists watching Spongebob in traffic behind the wheel of their A8s.