Richard Cree 15 Jun 2018 10:34am

On the road to autonomous driving

With artificial intelligence (AI), automation and the future of transport frequenting the news, the release of Audi’s new Q8 model could not have been better timed. Richard Cree takes a look at how it sets the brand up for the future
Caption: Reviewing the Audi Q8: how does it set the brand up for the future?
Canadian economist Avi Goldfarb has an interesting take on automation and AI. In his excellent new book, Prediction Machines, he brilliantly unpicks some of the hype surrounding AI, using the language of economics rather than science fiction. Goldfarb and his co-authors prefer to talk about the “falling cost of predictions” rather than discussing the scarier idea of a general computing intelligence. As he puts it, “AI is a technology that has been 50 years away for the last 60 years”.

This focus on the more practical elements of automation came to mind during the recent Second Annual Audi Brand Summit in Shenzen, China. As with many of the major car firms, Audi hasn’t been at the top of its game when it comes to predicting market trends in recent years. As with many others it bet heavily on clean diesel (largely as a result of incentives from several national governments). But it has now, apparently, seen a different future. It is a future in three stages.

Ultimately, it agrees with Goldfarb, that autonomous vehicles are on their way. They are, after all little more than prediction machines that merely require enough good quality training and learning data. All we need is to make sure they are supplied with the right quality data at the right time in order to allow them to make correct predictions (turn right, rather than left; slow down or stop rather than speed up and so on). Audi again showed its Aicon concept, basically an Audi-badged autonomous pod, which will convey passengers in style and safety without them having to do anything as dull as driving.

Before that, this summer, Audi is backing the current boom in electric cars, with the launch of the E-tron, it’s first fully electric vehicle. Since 2014 it has tentatively offered two hybrid models (an A3 Sportback and a Q7) but neither have sold well in the UK. This summer’s E-tron will be better and is aimed squarely at possible brand defectors won over by the likes of Tesla and Jaguar’s new all-electric SUV.

But right now Audi is predicting that the current boom in high-end, style-conscious SUVs will continue. To that end in Shenzen it pulled the covers off the Q8, a new range-topping SUV. In a sentence, the Q8 adds even more style to the existing Q range’s substance. It means a focus on rakish coupé good looks as much as traditional SUV abilities.

The Q8’s statistics – not least a starting price of £65,000 – are aimed squarely at meeting the desirability challenge of BMW’s X6 and SUV’s from Range Rover (including the Velar) and even new SUV entrants such as the Maserati Levante. It also comes with much of the same in-car technology as the recently launched A8, A7 and A6. This includes a very desirable and intuitive touch-screen interface that means the central tunnel and instrument panel are gorgeously minimal, free from too much button-clutter. There is also the latest incarnation of the Audi virtual cockpit (a 12.3-inch high resolution TFT monitor that takes the place of the normal instrument cluster).

The Q8 may be of the moment, but it comes with plenty of nods to the near future. So while the Q8 launches with a 3.0-litre V6 diesel (50 TDI in new Audi model parlance), and a 3.0-litre V6 petrol (55 TSFI) to follow in 2019, there is also a nod to the electric future with the inclusion of performance enhancing 48v “mild hybrid” technology in both. And while all the usual driver-assistance packages are included (39 in total) there are also provisions for some future autonomous tricks, including Audi parking pilot and Audi garage pilot, which allow the Q8 to park itself (in a parallel space or a garage) without a driver in the car. These will be deployed gradually following launch.

Audi cabins have been the envy of many manufacturers for a while and the most recent launch will do nothing to dispel this. It really is a tranquil haven and treasure trove for gadget fans. With similar dimensions to a Range Rover Sport, this is not a small car, and with some strong styling cues from the old Audi Quattro, the Q8 adopts an impressively muscular and striking stance. In summary, if Audi hasn't always got its predictions right in recent years, it is a fair bet that with the Q8 it is heading in the direction for success.

Q8 50 TDI quattro S line in numbers:
Price: £65,000
Power: 282bhp
Top speed: 144mph
0-62 mph: 6.3 seconds