Yesterday Audi launched the 2018 A8 executive sedan — the most technologically advanced production car the brand has ever put on the road. The headlining feature, which Audi calls “traffic jam pilot,” marks the biggest step towards full autonomous driving from any of the big three German brands. And yet, it’s incredibly disappointing, because it’s packaged in a car that looks as overly serious and terminally clinical as the Audi A8.
Traffic jam pilot isn’t full autonomous driving; you can’t use it 100 percent of the time that you’re driving in the car. There’s a limited set of circumstances in which it is allowed to be engaged, but when it is, Audi says the driver is free to watch movies on the center console screen, or whatever it is they feel like doing in traffic, because the A8 takes over acceleration, braking and steering responsibilities and can start from a dead stop. But, for the system to be allowed to activate at all, the traffic you’re sitting in has to be on the highway, and that highway has to have a median barrier between you and the oncoming traffic, and the system only works up to 60 kph (39 mph). Using an arsenal of LIDAR, a front-facing camera, radar and ultrasonic sensors, Audi has beat its rivals to the market with the first autonomous system that is completely hands-off — albeit in a specific environment, at safe, slow speeds. Baby steps.
The sad part is, that as we march toward the inevitable future of driverless cars, companies like Audi are already making it the norm to put this frankly breathtaking new tech in cars that equate to polished home appliances. Even as someone who loves driving, I wouldn’t mind enjoying the luxury of being driven by the car itself, but I’d much rather be in a car that looks like it’s styled by Bertone rather than Bosch. And of all the big German limousines, the S-Class is the only one that has any emotion in the design, it’s the only one left that still looks like it was designed by hand. And for that reason alone, I would wait until Mercedes perfects their version of Audi’s ‘traffic jam pilot’ — because it’s not far off.