After months of teasers and information trickles, the all-new, fourth-generation Audi A8 has officially arrived. The high-tech sedan becomes the first production car to include Level 3 autonomous capabilities, and it also has an intelligent active suspension, heavily digitized cockpit with new MMI infotainment engine, and all-wheel steering. Buyers in this segment who weren't thinking Audi before might just want to wait a few months and schedule an A8 test drive.

Audi revealed the all-new A8 at the Audi Summit in Barcelona on Tuesday, focusing in on the German version, which will launch in late 2017.

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Autonomy reaches Level 3

There's a lot of technology going on under the gently massaged skin of the new A8, the most newsworthy being the advanced piloted driving functions. Audi has been one of the world leaders in testing and demonstrating autonomous tech, and it's now cashing in by making the A8 the first production car with Level 3 capabilities.

That means the driver will be able to take hands off the wheel completely, for extended periods of time, under specific conditions. It provides a "flipping through a magazine or reading email" level of disengagement, though naps are out since Level 3 requires that the driver be prepared to take over when conditions begin to exceed autonomous system capabilities.

Level 3 autonomous driving is achieved under the push-button Audi AI traffic jam pilot system, which operates in slow moving traffic up to 37 mph (60 km/h) on freeways with a barrier separating the two directions of traffic. Once the button is pushed, the car takes over all starting, accelerating, braking and steering functions, freeing the driver to do something else entirely.

"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 onboard TV," Audi explains.

It might be tempting to catch some shut-eye, particularly if things are deep bumper-to-bumper with no signs of free-up, but the driver monitoring system is there to keep the driver awake. A camera does the monitoring, and the system issues alerts should it sense the driver becoming drowsy or sleeping, because the driver will have to take over when things start moving back up toward highway speed. When that time comes, the A8 will inform the driver with a multistage alert, and should he or she not get the memo, the car will brake itself to standstill.

The description of the system's operation brings to forefront of mind the debate about Level 3 driving. Some automakers and industry leaders believe that Level 3 systems should be skipped all together due to the uncertainty surrounding the pass-off between car and driver.

Even if the driver tries to maintain full attentiveness, it will prove difficult when not actively driving. Will he or she be ready to take over when the time comes? How long will the car give the driver to take over? What happens if the driver does not respond?

Audi explains that the A8 will brake to standstill, but will it pull over safely to the shoulder? What happens if there isn't a shoulder to pull onto?

These are questions that Audi and regulators within prospective launch markets will need to address before this Level 3 tech rolls out, which will happen gradually as the regulations catch up to the technology.

"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," Audi recognizes. "Audi will therefore be adopting a step-by-step approach to the introduction of the traffic jam pilot in production models."

The new A8 also marks the launch of the Audi AI remote parking pilot and remote garage pilot systems, which allow the car to park itself in a space or garage with the driver outside the car. The driver can step out, start the parking procedure from the accompanying myAudi app, and switch over to a live feed from the car's 360-degree cameras. He or she can reverse the procedure from the smartphone app as well, and the car will maneuver out of the spot for pickup.

Audi intends to begin production of these advanced driving and parking pilot systems next year.

Supporting technological cast

The new A8 features a standard 48-volt electrical system for the first time. In addition to running the usual 12 V electrical equipment as a subsystem, the 48 V platform powers new features like the available Audi AI active suspension system. This electromechanical suspension takes adaptive air suspension to new heights, using data from the front-facing camera to detect changes in the road surface and adjust the suspension settings at each individual wheel to match.

Audi says that drivers can expect the system to virtually eliminate bumps and jolts while still delivering precise, dynamic handling. It can also enhance safety by working with the pre sense 360° monitoring system. The active suspension can lift the side of the car body by up to 3.1 in (18 mm) in the event of an impending lateral collision. The side sills and floor structure take on a greater portion of the collision force, helping to cut up to 50 percent of the loads on occupants.

The available dynamic all-wheel steering system helps the A8 find a balance of stability and quick-reacting handling. The system adjusts front-wheel steering ratios and manages rear-wheel steering, all according to speed. At medium to high speeds, the rear wheels turn up to 2 degrees in the direction of steering for enhanced stability. At low speeds, they turn up to 5 degrees against the steering direction, shortening the turning circle by 3.2 feet (1 m), down as low as 37.4 feet (11.4 m).

Situational awareness

Below all that autonomous rolling, ducking and weaving, the A8 relies on 12 ultrasonic sensors spread around the car, four 360-degree cameras, a front camera on the top edge of the windscreen, four mid-range radars at the corners, one front long-range radar, one front infrared camera and a front laser scanner.

The front bumper-integrated laser scanner is the new highlight of the package, sending pulses of near-infrared light out across multiple vertical planes. The light spreads about 145 degrees and travels out about 263 feet (80 m) deep, bouncing back off of objects in front of the car in less than a microsecond. The light is captured by photodiodes and used to create a contoured image that combines with data from other sensors into the detailed imagery that underpins the car's autonomous features.

In place of multiple function-specific control units, the A8 has a central driver assistance controller (zFAS) that processes imagery and controls the car's autonomous functions. This advanced controller is about the size of a tablet computer and includes Nvidia Tegra K1, Altera Cyclone V, Infineon Aurix and Mobileye EyeQ3 hardware.

Engines and hybrids for every taste and situation

Audi will offer a full lineup of V6, V8, W12 and hybrid powertrains with staggered launches. The first two options available to German buyers will be a 335-hp 3.0-liter V6 turbo and a 282-hp 3.0-liter turbo diesel, both reengineered for the new model. A pair of 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8s will follow, a 429-hp TDI (diesel) and a 453-hp TFSI (petrol).

In the future, Audi will add a 577-hp 6.0-liter twin-turbo W12 to the top of the line and an e-tron quattro hybrid, both for the long-wheelbase A8 L trim. The L e-tron will combine a 3.0-liter TFSI engine with a 14.1-kWh lithium ion-powered electric motor for up to 443 hp. It will offer about 31 miles (50 km) of all-electric driving and will debut the option of Audi Wireless Charging.

Whatever engine the buyer chooses, a newly developed eight-speed Tiptronic transmission handles power and torque delivery. The standard quattro permanent with self-locking center differential routes torque at a standard 40:60 front/rear split. When needed for better traction, the system can direct up to 85 percent of torque to the rear or 70 percent to the front. A sports differential, available with the V6, V8 and W12 engines, adjusts torque delivery between the rear wheels to enhance cornering capabilities.

The 48-volt electrical system and its belt alternator starter bring another interesting advantage to all engine levels of A8. The mild hybrid technology allows the car to cruise engine-free at speeds between 34 to 99 mph (55 to 160 km/h) for about 40 seconds, helping improve efficiency and briefly cut emissions. The belt alternator starter ensures a quick, smooth engine restart.

A new wardrobe

The fourth-generation A8's styling is more an evolutionary update than a complete makeover from the gen-three, but Audi stresses that it's the start of a new brand-wide design era. Following the Prologue concept car, the A8 wears a sharper-cornered hexagonal grille set between a new set of glaring eyes, split down the middle by the daytime running lights. The HD Matrix LED headlights include Audi's laser spot technology, putting plenty of light where it's needed without dazzling oncoming drivers.

The front-end flows more seamlessly back into the fenders than the current A8, thanks to the loss of the creases outside the headlights. From there, Audi describes all measures of "fluid, muscular" proportions and quattro-hinting wheel arches, but the A8 really looks like a basic sedan profile, not all that far advanced from the outgoing version.

In back, the reshaped OLED taillights are joined by a thin lighting strip extending between their upper edges. This helps lend a wider, thinner look to the subtly tipped-forward rear-end.

A cozy tech cocoon

Audi didn't assign all its tech geeks to the A8's advanced sensor-backed intelligent drive systems; it also put some on the interior design and engineering. That team spent much of its time pulling out most of the A8's physical buttons and dials, replacing them with a sleek, horizontal digital interface centered around a two-level, dual-screen control hub.

The upper 10.1-in screen controls infotainment, while the lower 8.6-in screen is dedicated to climate controls and text inputs. A 12.3-in TFT digital instrument panel shows key information in full HD, front and center, and the driver can cycle through menu options using controls on the steering wheel. An optional head-up display provides another digital information layer.

The cockpit design is definitely cleaner than the mix of touchscreens, pads, buttons, switches and dials on the outgoing A8, but we're not sure every A8 driver will like having to rely so much on touch technology. Audi tries to address the issue with its new MMI touch response system, integrating tactile and acoustic feedback into the console touchscreens. An electromagnetic pulse serves as tactile feedback when the driver successfully pushes a touchscreen option, and a "click" sound played by a small speaker provides an auditory cue.

A new voice control system provides another control option, promising more natural, conversational speech. The system works with navigation, air conditioning, media, and some telephony and Audi Connect features.

Moving back from all that digital display glass up front, the interior gets a little roomier thanks to the new A8's stretched dimensions. The standard A8 is 1.5 in (37 mm) longer than the outgoing model and the long-wheelbase A8 L is 5.1 in (130 mm) longer. Each model is roughly half an inch (13 mm) higher than its predecessor. Both long and standard wheelbase A8s add 1.3 in (32 mm) of interior length, and the A8 L has more head, leg and shoulder room.

Audi takes advantage of some of this space by offering an optional relaxation seat, Audi's take on the Chinese market-influenced VIP rear-seat trend we've seen Volvo and Varsovia explore in recent years. The reclining relaxation seat comes with a footrest, an electric-adjustable head restraint, and a multi-mode foot massager/heater integrated into the back of the front seat ... not a bad way to spend a road trip.

Audi also offers rear passengers an OLED touchscreen remote housed in the center armrest for controlling lighting, climate, media and other settings. A pair of seat back-mount 10.1-in Audi HD tablets are available in the rear seat entertainment package, and an available 1,920-watt, 23-speaker 3D Bang & Olufsen premium sound system brings serious audio. Other options include a rear wireless-charge phone box, digital audio and TV tuners, an LTE Advanced data transmission module with Wi-Fi, and a clean air fragrance/ionization package.

Bottom line

The German-market A8 will start rolling out in late 2017. Both the A8 and A8 L will be built at Audi's Neckarsulm site and will start at €90,600 and €94,100 (approx. US$104K and $108K), respectively.

Source: Audi

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