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The world’s first fully autonomous cars are years away. But the steppingstones to that point are being tackled fast by the world’s automakers.

Given the cost of the technology involved, it’s not surprising that luxury brands are leading the autonomy charge. In Europe, the deep-pocketed German marques, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are setting the pace, while in the U.S., Cadillac is rolling out semi-autonomous technology and upstart Tesla continues to make headlines with its self-driving systems.

Underlying these efforts is a philosophical shift by many global automakers, which now want to be viewed not simply as car producers, but as “mobility” or “digital car companies.”

Exemplifying this movement is Audi, which recently laid out its digital intentions at its own technology conference in Barcelona. The highlight of the Audi Summit was the brand’s new A8 sedan, due on the market next summer. Even though sales of full-size luxury sedans have fallen dramatically since the 2008 recession, as flagships they remain important halo vehicles for their respective brands, showcasing technologies and design themes that will filter down to more mainstream models over time.

Such is the case with the next-generation A8, which not only is packed from nose to tail with high-tech features. The A8’s Traffic Jam Pilot system will be able to take over the driving duties on a divided highway at speeds up to 37 mph. This may sound limited in scope, but for those drivers who regularly face long commutes in slow traffic it could be a godsend. Audi likes to refer to the personal time “gained” back from drivers using the system as the 25th hour.

But before you get notions of hopping into the back seat to lie down and take a nap, know the A8 has a camera watching the driver to make sure he or she is ready to take over control within 10 seconds should the need arise.

More problematic is the legal morass facing autonomous cars both in the U.S. and in most of Europe, except Germany. Apart from some limited testing programs, most U.S. states currently do not permit self-driving cars on public roads. As such, it’s unlikely that Traffic Jam Pilot will be activated on the A8 when it’s launched here, but Audi hopes the legal hurdles will be cleared soon.

Aside from the traffic jam system, the new A8 packs an array of new hybrid powertrains, active suspension and driver-aid technologies. Using a powerful new 48-volt electrical system and laser sensors that read the road surface, the A8’s suspension can react almost instantaneously to bumps and potholes and promises a super-smooth ride. The car also boasts laser headlights that double the length of full beam and a revised, twin flat-screen, touch-operated center console.

Undoubtedly the A8 is a technological tour de force, but will it move the sales needle in its segment? Audi of America president Scott Keogh acknowledges the full-size sedan class is not what it was. “It is 50 percent smaller than it was at its peak before the financial meltdown,” he says.

“SUVs came along, like the Q7 and the Range Rover, and people thought ‘this is a new form of prestige.’ Plus the incoming younger generation of buyers thought these sedans sort of stood for fat-cat values, with not enough of new world technology to drive innovation.”

But Keogh says the 2019 A8 can be positioned “not as a bloated fat-cat vehicle, but as a carrier of some absolute game-changing technologies.”

Most sedans in the A8 class are sold in Miami, Los Angeles and New York. “Their drivers are often stuck in grueling, tedious traffic, so our level three autonomous system will be a major advantage,” adds Keogh. “We’re optimistic about what we can do with this car.”

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com

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