The new Audi starship has landed and while most commentators have chosen to fixate on its style, we’ve elected to crawl underneath, pretending to understand what we find there.
Audi’s new flagship saloon is a technological marvel, possibly the most advanced luxury car it is possible to pre-order for Autumn delivery right now – or at least until the next one comes along anyway. Not content busying themselves with a power race as fervid as that pursued by the Detroit big three fifty years ago, the German luxury brands are now shifting their battleground into hitherto unrealised realms of electronic wizardry and fearsome complexity.
So while opinion as to whether the A8 lives up to the stylistic promise of Marc Lichte’s 2014 Prologue concept remains a matter of debate, Audi’s commitment to technology appears to be more solidly grounded. A 48-volt electrical system now supports the potential for what Ingolstadt describes as “highly automated driving”, allowing the car to be autonomous in slow-moving traffic and at speeds up to 31mph under tightly regulated parameters. Adding to the suite of sensors, scanners, radar and cameras, Audi also claims the A8 is also first to be fitted with a laser.
Well, when you’re up against Mercedes-Benz’s much publicised ‘Magic Ride‘ (amongst other technological wizardry) you need to have something up your sleeve, which has prompted Audi to come up with an even more complex predictive ‘electromechanical‘ suspension system. The five-link front and rear suspension employs the obligatory air springs, but Ingolstadt engineers have taken matters further, fitting an electric motor to each wheel, working in concert with what Audi describes as “a rotary tube together with internal titanium torsion bar and a lever which exerts up to 1,100 Nm on the suspension via a coupling rod.” Taking information relayed by road-scanning cameras and sensors, this combined system softens or firms the air springs accordingly, which Audi claims, will virtually eliminate road shock and vibration.
It all sounds (and looks) fiendishly clever, does it not, and one has to admire Audi engineers’ ingenuity and craft, but lets reflect on this for a moment. Yes of course it’s refreshing to see ride comfort being prioritised, although if a car in the limousine class doesn’t ride well, one has to question its purpose in life. However, as these cars become ever more weighty and complex, so too do the issues for chassis engineers. Despite all efforts to reduce the bulk of the body in white, ladling additional sensors, motors and suspension hardware (to say nothing of the battery packs for hybrid models) only makes these issues more vexing.
What we appear to have now is a situation where engineers are chasing ever more complex solutions to issues of ride refinement and the minimisation of NVH that to a greater extent were close to being resolved a number of decades ago when such vehicles weighed a fraction of what they do now. The dynamic and kinematic issues were broadly the same then, the obvious difference now being one of spiralling weight and the never-ending search for the next tech advantage. It’s as much a power race as the powerplant residing beneath the bonnet, driven by the necessity to outclass one’s rivals, but surely it’s one that is ultimately self-defeating?
No car with this degree of built-in obsolescence needs to be as complex and technologically dense as this A8 has become. Fabulously complex and marvellously clever it may be, but can we seriously continue in this vein?