2019 Audi A8: Flagship Floats on Active Suspension
Bursting with tech, including a foot massager!
The auto industry’s version of trickle-down economics says today’s six-figure almost-limos foreshadow tomorrow’s entry-level premium cars and next week’s middle-class sedans and family crossovers. So it’s no stretch to say that, at least for this fleeting moment, the 2019 Audi A8 sits at the vanguard of the changing auto industry with its hybrid powertrain assist as standard equipment and a laundry list of production-vehicle firsts. The fourth-generation A8 will introduce drivers to a truly active suspension, a 48-volt primary electrical system, and—in select markets—Level 3 autonomy by which Audi becomes the first automaker to sanction hands-free, Facebook-’til-your-face-melts driving. And yet all of that seems like peanuts when measured against the fact that this new A8 will happily rub even the funkiest feet after a grueling game of badminton, courtesy of a built-in rear-seat foot massager.
Bring on the Gridlock!
With the new A8, Audi’s Traffic Jam Assist evolves into Traffic Jam Pilot. A single camera, five radar units, ultrasonic sensors, and the first laser scanner fitted to a production vehicle will allow for true hands-free driving in heavy traffic on divided highways at speeds up to 37 mph. While that makes for a fairly narrow use case outside of major metro areas, these stop-and-go commuting scenarios are also where Mark Zuckerberg whispers his sweetest seductions into a driver’s subconscious.
Of note, the piloted-driving algorithm won’t pester the driver with periodic reminders to grab the wheel, and the manufacturer says it will accept full liability for crashes that occur while Traffic Jam Pilot is operating. That’s not to say you can crawl into the back seat for a foot massage during your two-hour slog down Interstate 5. Since the A8 will never change lanes on its own, it will require the driver to assume command to merge when a lane ends or to steer around a disabled vehicle. When the sensors detect traffic ahead accelerating beyond 37 mph, the A8 alerts the driver to retake control. If the driver fails to respond, the car will activate the hazard lights, slow to a stop in its lane, and place a call to Audi’s emergency service.
All of this is merely a dangling carrot for U.S. customers right now, though. Traffic Jam Pilot is unlikely to be offered when the new A8 goes on sale here in the late spring of 2018. That’s because the technology continues to run up against legislative limits in some states, such as New York where a 1971 law mandates that drivers keep at least one hand on the steering wheel at all times. It’s conceivable that Traffic Jam Pilot could never be offered in the United States, although we rank that as highly unlikely. State and federal legislators have shown little opposition to the concept of self-driving cars, and most appear eager to clear the hurdles under the unproven notion that fully autonomous cars will unlock an economic tsunami. (In fact, the opposite seems just as plausible.)
Truly Active Suspension, Electron Enabled
All A8s, regardless of market and engine, will feature some form of hybrid assist. In most versions, this manifests with a 48-volt alternator/starter connected to the engine via the accessory belt. This unit, which is paired with a turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 and an eight-speed automatic in the base A8 and is good for an estimated 340 horsepower, can’t move the car under electric power alone. Instead, it boosts efficiency by widening the window to use automatic engine stop-start and increasing the amount of energy recaptured while coasting. Auto stop-start can shut down the engine from speeds as high as 14 mph and now uses the camera to read the car’s surroundings. For example, the A8’s engine will restart when the vehicle ahead begins moving, even if the driver’s foot remains on the brake. Between 34 and 99 mph, the A8 will coast for up to 40 seconds when the driver lifts off the accelerator pedal.
This system differs from the electrical architectures in the Bentley Bentayga and the Audi SQ7. In those crossovers, a 12-volt alternator supplies energy to 48-volt subsystems. In the A8, energy is generated and stored via the belt-driven alternator/starter and a 48-volt lithium-ion battery that assumes responsibility for charging a 12-volt lead-acid battery that powers traditional accessories such as the electrically assisted steering, power windows, and heated seats.
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