New Audi A8 points to the motoring future – but is it a future we want?
Audi this week unveiled its all-new A8 luxury limousine an advanced flagship showcasing the Ingolstadt auto maker’s technological prowess, and expressing its vision of the motoring future.
Not surprisingly, the new A8 is sleek but large, with a capacious interior to match. Also not surprisingly, it uses a mix of lightweight materials to keep the weight within manageable levels, benefiting performance and economy in the process..
In line with current premium car trends, the A8’s array of conventional turbo petrol and turbodiesel drivetrain options will be augmented by a plug-in hybrid version, too. And of course, being an Audi, quattro all-wheel drive is standard.
So, what really sets the A8 apart from its Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7-Series rivals?
Well, there’s the cabin, which moves away from conventional ergonomics by swapping normal switches, buttons and controllers for touch-screen displays that offer both haptic and sonic feedback when operated, and also react, smartphone-like, to various gestures.
The main screen is a generous 10,1-inch affair offering intuitive access to the A8’s daunting infotainment system. A second, more compact display in the centre console is dedicated to the climate control and comfort functions. Both appear as blank, chic black glass surfaces that only spring into life when the A8 is operational.
For those who prefer verbal interaction, the A8 employs an intelligent voice command system that reacts to conversational requests and commands, much like Apple’s Siri does. A mix of control system and automotive Google, it can access on-board and on-line databases for information on destinations, traffic information, streaming media and the like.
But wait, there’s more: the A8 debuts Audi’s traffic jam pilot – an artificial intelligence-driven automated driving system that allows the car to drive itself, completely hands free, at speeds of up to 60 km/h on multi-lane highways.
Autonomous driving has been the motor industry buzzword for some time now, and systems such as automatic parking and accident avoidance systems are already well established at the premium end of the market.
But the traffic jam pilot marks the first time a production model will be able to drive itself without any driver input. The A8’s traffic pilot can start, accelerate, steer and brake the car without continuous driver monitoring, and without the need to hold the steering wheel.
The system uses radar, an array of cameras, multiple sensors and a laser scanner to identify and dynamically react to its surroundings. Audi points out that activation of the system will depend on the traffic laws applicable in individual countries.
If you’re often stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the traffic pilot sounds like motoring nirvana. But it poses a bigger, much more pertinent question: does it herald the beginning of the end of motoring as we know it?
Will we soon be at the informed mercy of artificial intelligence, being driven from point to point with no more scope for participation than deciding on a destination, dialling in the air-con, and selecting something soothing from the entertainment menu? Will the fine art of driving soon be relegated to the theoretical, synthetic realms of Gran Turismo, or Need For Speed?
The new Audi A8 confirms that the notion of autonomous driving is no longer just a pipe dream, but a feasible reality (if the legal implications and potential liabilities can be overcome, that is).
Nor is Audi alone – the likes of BMW, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen are all poised to offer similar, ever-advancing technologies in their cars of the future.
No doubt the world will be a safer place. Orderly and precisely regulated, too. We won’t need to buy cars anymore: we’ll buy the time spent in them. Nor will we need to drive them, either. Artificial intelligence will take care of that.
But is it a motoring future those of us who relish the cut and thrust of driving ourselves will enjoy? No.
In time, perhaps, auto makers who spent decades nurturing the emotive appeal and the dynamic excellence of their products may realise that autonomous driving is likely to be about as exciting as piloting a sofa. A comfortable sofa, yes – and perhaps an aesthetically attractive one. But a sofa, nonetheless.
No wonder classic cars are gaining in value, all the time …