Technologues Realized: Exploring the 2019 Audi A8’s Cool Future Tech

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Our name promises to keep you abreast of what’s now, what’s new, and what’s next in the car biz. Our Trend and Technologue pages provide a crystal-ball/tarot-card prediction of just how wonderful motoring could be in the future. Then it usually falls to luxury flagship sedans such as the 2018 Audi A8 L to prove or disprove our fearless predictions. This one weighs in on our predictions of SAE Level 3 autonomy, active electric suspensions, 48-volt electrical architecture, and mixed-material body structures and delivers several we haven’t weighed in on such as laser scanners, laser body welding, and last but certainly not least—foot massagers! Let’s take a closer look at the bleeding-edge tech Audi will be rolling out next summer.

Read more about the 2019 Audi A8 L here:

Leave the Driving to Us!

How many stories have we done on autonomy? Now Audi claims its A8 will be the first production car designed to take full responsibility for accelerating, braking and steering itself. Big asterisk number one: This will only happen on divided highways in traffic jams at speeds under 37 mph, and it will make no lane changes. A camera watches to make sure the driver is always capable of resuming control within 10 seconds when the sensors detect traffic speeding up or a mandatory lane-change—so no climbing in back to watch movies and get foot rubs! If the driver doesn’t take control, the car stops in the lane, calls for help, and creates a new traffic jam. Asterisk nummer zwei: Traffic Jam Pilot will not be offered at launch in the U.S. nor in many other global jurisdictions where legal hurdles remain, but Audi believes the state and federal roadblocks will be resolved in the short term.

This is still a big deal, in that Audi has invested in the layers of redundancy required in all critical areas. Situational awareness derives from fusing sensor data from a forward-looking camera, a 145-degree forward-looking laser scanner, four corner-mounted short-range radar, and a longer-range grille-mounted radar sensor and ultrasonic sensors. Braking redundancy is provided by the fact that the stability control and brake-assist systems are independently capable of actuating the brakes.

That laser scanner is a production-car first and involves a stationary laser beam aimed at a spinning wheel with flat mirrors on it, each face of which directs the beam through its 145-degree forward arc. It’s located down in the lower grille opening and is automatically cleaned by a washer jet (reminding us that keeping that fluid reservoir filled is going to become an increasingly mission-critical part of driving).

Electric Active Suspension

My very first Technologue column back in December 2004 covered an electromagnetic active suspension Bose was working on. This is as close as any automaker has come to fulfilling that prediction, but the electromagnetic rams are replaced by an electric motor about the size of a small alternator at each corner. These connect to the suspension links kind of like an active anti-roll bar would, and they’re capable of pushing each wheel up over a bump or down into a pothole to smooth out the ride. These electric motors control major body motions such as roll, pitch, and dive, which simplifies the jobs left to the air springs and dampers. The former merely have to level and support the car’s weight (at one of four ride heights) while the latter focus on damping individual wheel motions. Engaging the Dynamic mode of Drive Select tenses the dampers slightly and reduces the amount of roll the active suspension allows. The optional Audi AI suspension adds about 110 pounds to the A8.

Each motor routes its torque through a 200:1 belt-drive and strain-wave gear train to a titanium torque tube, which in turn twists a torsion bar and lever arm that connects to the suspension link. On a rough road requiring continuous up-and-down motions, these motors can peak at 2 kW each (7 kW max for the system). Each corner is capable of applying 811 lb-ft of torque to the corner (them’s Bugatti W-16 torques!). Like the Bose system, these motors regenerate energy on the way back down off a bump or up out of a pothole. That energy doesn’t power the car at all, but it reduces the average power draw of the system to between 10-200 watts. Light bulb power promises a magic carpet ride!

The forward camera scans the road surface 16 to 66 feet ahead for bumps, then orders the motors to push or pull the wheels up or down as necessary to virtually carpet the road surface. We’re told that if the vehicle speed and road surface texture work out to four bumps per second or slower at each wheel, the ride quality is amazing. Between four and six bumps per second is when it starts to overwhelm the motors, and the magic ends on anything wash-boardier than that, leaving the feel of a normal passive suspension.

Audi engineers developed and patented Audi AI active suspension, so their brand gets first crack at it, but expect to see it roll out on new Bentley models as they arrive. Oh, and the system has a safety trick up its sleeve: if the corner radar units sense an impending side-impact crash of greater than 15 mph, they signal the motors on that side to raise the body 3.1 inches to direct more of the impact forces into the floor structure.

48 Volt Architecture

Many German companies toyed with tripling electrical-system voltage in the ’90s, but by November 2012 I reported on concerted industry efforts to quadruple it. The VW Group has led the charge with last year’s Bentayga/Q7 platform introducing 48-volt active anti-roll bars fed by a 12-volt primary architecture. The A8 stakes its claim as the first production car with a primary 48-volt system that down-converts to 12 volts for running bulbs, switches, and infotainment gear. (Read the owners’ manual carefully before offering or accepting a jump start from a new A8!)

This 48-volt energy powers the optional active suspension as well as some level of hybridization on all A8s. The initial 3.0-liter turbo V-6 and later 4.0-liter V-8 engines will both feature a compact belt-driven alternator/starter capable of shuttling energy back and forth between the powertrain and a small 48-volt lithium-ion battery at a rate of about 12 kW. The stronger battery and motor enables much more frequent auto start/stop operation, for up to 40 seconds of silent “sailing” at speeds of 34-99 mph and when coasting down to a stop from 14 mph. An e-tron plug-in hybrid model might eventually arrive stateside with a much bigger 14.1-kWh battery under the trunk floor that enables up to 31 miles of electric operation inside zero-emissions zones. A bigger motor sandwiched between the engine and transmission helps the V-6 turbo deliver a total system output of about 449 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque. The e-tron model offers wireless inductive charging with a floor plate that rises up toward the car to deliver energy at a rate of 3.6 kW and 90 percent efficiency.

Lasers Galore

In addition to the aforementioned range-finding laser, the A8 has achieved full type approval to sell its laser high beam lights, but of course because our government fears technology (or perhaps wishes to keep us in the dark), U.S.-bound lasers are restricted to a range that extends just slightly past the LED high beam pattern (in Europe, the Laser doubles the high beam range). The 405-nanometer blue laser beam reflects off a material that turns the light white, and the laser unit itself is vastly smaller than the one that first appeared on Audi’s R8.

Lots more lasers are employed in unique new ways to weld up the body and doors. Remote laser welding is used to join the door inner and outer skins together around the window openings—another claimed world first. This makes the resulting flange smaller, allowing for larger windows and improved visibility. The laser itself is a solid-state 71-micron invisible-light unit that traces a sine-wave pattern along the joint, vaporizing the top layer of aluminum and fusing it to the lower layer in a joint unlikely to suffer hot cracking.

Mixed Media

The A8 helped pioneer all-aluminum construction, but mixed materials are the wave of the future, and Audi’s now riding it, with ultra-high-strength hot-pressed steel reinforcing the A- and B-pillars, lower body side rails, and tow-boards. Conventional steel is used in the front door pillars and upper engine-compartment crash rails, and a big sheet of carbon fiber forms the rear bulkhead and package shelf. By strategically layering between six and 19 layers of carbon fiber sheets or tape and then quickly impregnating it with epoxy and curing it, this bulkhead contributes 33 percent of the car’s torsional stiffness despite its large pass-through cutout. That stiffness increases by 24 percent for 2019. This bulkhead also simplifies assembly by arriving on the line with speakers, the center armrest, and rear climate-control module (if equipped) mounted to it. One robot applies adhesive around the edges, and another loads it in through the back window opening. Finally, a magnesium casting is used to brace the shock towers to the firewall. Nowadays aluminum only accounts for 58 percent of the body’s mass.

In all, 14 different joining processes are used to assemble the body, several of which represent new innovations—including spot welding of the roof outer panel to the inner rails. Another of these is joining the aluminum body side aperture to the various hot-formed and conventional steel and stamped aluminum structure surrounding the doors. The multiple layers are first held in place with three “grip-punched rivets” in each door opening. After that, the aluminum body side gets rolled, hemmed, and bonded to the other materials, forming a smaller flange that increases the opening size by about 1.5 inches. A cold metal arc-welding process is used to fuse the outer rear-quarter-panel skin to the trunk-opening trough, and here the benefit is that the highly localized heat of the laser never risks deforming the class-A surface.

Touchy Controls

We’ve been loud cheerleaders for Audi’s intuitive knob-based MMI, but time marches on, and that system is hitting the dustbin. In its place is a sleeker-looking twin-touchscreen user interface that blends beautifully into the large swathe of piano-black running across the bottom of the dash. Naturally these MMI Touch Response screens support swiping, pinch zooming, and tabletlike icons. Selecting these requires a firm press of the screen, which prompts a haptic click of feedback. The 10.1-inch upper screen selects among most functions. The 8.6-inch lower one usually displays the climate controls, but when inputting anything that requires typing, the lower screen becomes available for keyboard typing or finger painting the letters and numbers. It’s large enough to allow whole words to be entered, and it’s well positioned and angled for use by a right driver’s hand or left passenger’s hand resting on the shift lever. The idea seems promising, but none of the prototype units we tried seemed to work as reliably as our beloved MMI.

Foot Massaging!

Every new luxobarge has to have a schtick—something to rile up the wags and pundits. For the A8 it’s an optional rear seat foot massager that allows a chauffeured Mr. or Ms. Big to sit in the right rear seat, motor the front seatback well forward, power down a legrest, and press his/her feet up against a panel. At that point Audi says “the feet are warmed and massaged with multiple settings. There are three power levels, two programs and three foot sizes to choose from, also providing full-surface reflexology.” We can’t confirm any of that because the 2,500 press, dealers, and fans of the brand on hand for the gala launch event were not treated to foot rubs. Stay tuned…

Personal Intelligent Assistant

This sounds like an onboard HAL 9000 and promises to take artificial intelligence to another level. If you get in the car with an impending appointment on your smart phone, the car will automatically load the location destination as an icon on the main control screen that you can just press to initiate navigation. If there’s a contact associated with the appointment, that info will appear as a second icon you can touch to call or text the person if necessary. If “PIA” notices that you’re running a little early, but the tank is not full enough to make the return trip home, “she” might suggest a stop to refuel on the way, providing a list of options prioritized by the driver’s past preferences. Once stopped at the station, if the washer fluid is slightly low, PIA might recommend the purchase of a refill bottle. The system is always monitoring the traffic and “driver workload,” waiting to make suggestions such as the refueling idea until workload is low (e.g. steady cruising on a straight stretch with few cars nearby). When messages come in during higher workload situations, they are minimally noted by a small icon until the workload decreases. This system is planned for roll-out fairly soon.

Fit Driver Concept

The idea here is to make riding in an Audi a stress-reducing event so that owners arrive home from a tough day of work less likely to kick the dog and rush the preparation of a martini. The car connects to a wearable device that monitors things such as heart rate and breathing. Heart rate can be flashed on the ambient lighting strips, and if it’s high, indicating stress, the car might recommend breathing exercises by playing audible inhale/exhale sounds and coloring the ambient lighting blue on inhale, red on exhale. At the end of the exercise, the drive is graded on how closely the breathing was followed and noting the drop in heart rate. Seat massaging is another stress reducer, with very intense vibrations. It also vibrates the seat to match any music the driver selects so that everyone truly feels the music. Would you tolerate a car getting up in your business this much? The answer to that question will determine this concept’s fate.

2019 Audi A8 L
BASE PRICE $90,000-$110,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 4-5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINES 3.0L/335-hp/325-lb-ft (est) turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6; 4.0L/453-hp/444-lb-ft (est) twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 4,400-4,600 lb (est)
WHEELBASE 123.1 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 208.7 x 76.6 x 58.6 in
0-60 MPH 4.0-5.0 sec (MT est)
ON SALE IN U.S. Fall 2018

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