Payne: Audi-tonomous A8L and the future of self-driving

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I'm writing this on my laptop while driving the state-of-the-art, semi-autonomous Audi A8L on my way home. Lane-keep assist keeping me between the lines. Cruise control set at 55 mph. Adaptive cruise control following traffic in front of me at a safe distance. Brake mitigation bringing me to a stop at stoplights. Ah, bliss.

Had you going there for a moment, didn't I?

Tesla’s electric Model S will debut an “Autopilot” autonomous driving feature later this year.

In truth my eyes are glued to the road. The Audi is a remarkable beast inside and out with the body of Adonis, the interior of Exxon's board room, and on-board computers that would embarrass Hal in "2001: A Space Odyssey." But unlike Hal, it's not self-aware. Which might actually help.

Because the driver-assist features on the Audi are a glimpse of how futuristic autonomous cars work. Except when they don't. A self-aware car would avoid hitting a cement dividing wall on the Lodge because its instinct would be for self-preservation. But when Audi-tonomous overshot a solid lane marking line, the system merely beeped at me and flashed a message in the instrument cluster: "PLEASE TAKE OVER STEERING."

What the - ?!

I can see the future, but for now autonomous cars are like Bruce Wayne. Talented, but they need a butler to get through the day. To be sure, Audi doesn't advertise its driver-assist features as "self-driving" – but its camera and radar technologies preview what self-driving cars will in part rely on. Google is testing self-driving cars. I've been a passenger in one. It worked flawlessly at low speeds in Palo Alto, California. It holds huge promise for empowering the transportation-challenged elderly and infirmed. It could transform shuttle services.

Rattan Joea, CEO of California-based, airport-focused Prime Time Shuttle, sees a future of Uber-like ride shares. "Driverless vehicles will change the game," says the 20-year shuttle veteran. "It will streamline our service by taking the operator out of the equation. It will save on insurance by removing human limitations. Computers don't get tired. They don't get sleepy."

Think of a fleet of autonomous limos. "A beautiful vehicle comes and picks you up," Joea imagines. "We can send out shuttle like that at the click of a button."

Google has been a pioneer of the fully autonomous car by coupling camera and radar technologies with a landscape-mapping LIDAR system on the roof. The cost, however, balloons drives the price of this Toyota Prius to over $320,000.

But no such vehicle yet exists for him to test. No affordable vehicle anyway. An analysis by techie mag Fast Company estimates that Google's $24K Prius concept costs upward of $320,000 once optioned with necessary autonomous hardware like a $80,000 Velodyne LIDAR system, $10,000 visual and radar sensors, $200,000 GPS array, plus computer and software. Ouch.

It'll take a lot of airport runs for Mr. Joea to recoup that investment. Which takes me back to butlers. The ever-innovative Tesla will introduce its "Autopilot" system in its Model S sedan later this year. Autopilot is inspired by Boeing's in-flight system where the operator never leaves the controls but where the plane is programmed to reach a destination.

"It's better to have an optical system, basically cameras with software that is able to figure out what's going on just by looking at things," Tesla boss Elon Musk recently told Bloomberg of his idea for a more affordable hybrid of Google car and Audi A8 technologies. That is, a front and rear camera watching the road. Grille-mounted radar watching vehicles. An array of 12 electronic sensors blanketing the car and watching for everything else.

I'd also propose a big, red "DISABLE" button for motorheads like me who enjoy cars.

The new 2015 Audi A8L turbo-diesel combines a staggering 428 lb.-feet or torque with an array of driver-assist features.

Like the A8L. Consider Audi's 3.0-liter turbo diesel-injection V-6 powerplant. Specs: 250 horsepower and a redonkulus 428 pound feet of torque. This thing has more thrust than Apollo 11. Floor the big German and it surges forward like Charles Barkley at a Shoney's buffet. But where's the diesel's wokka-wokka-wokka thrum? So quiet is the Audi cabin — so buttery smooth its drivetrain — that I actually had to pull over and open the hood to make sure it was a diesel.

Exterior dress is Audi formal. Crisp shoulders creased like Brooks Brothers pants. Tuxedo black greenhouse cradling a moon roof with a gorgeous view of the stars for the rear lounge — er, seat - passengers. Which is where Mrs. Payne got comfortable. Caramel-smooth ride matched by caramel-soft leather thrones. Heated seat and climate controls in the center armrest. Wood-encrusted doors. Headrests fit for a beauty salon. Vanity mirrors drop from the ceiling. As do grab handles for when her husband dips into the neck-snapping torque and AWD handling.

The 2015 Audi A8L turbo-diesel gives a glimpse at our autonomous vehicle future with a cabin stuffed with camera and radar driver-assist features: Lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, brake mitigation, and more.

At the wheel I've decided I hate autonomous technology. Why let machines have all the fun?

Only the telematics drives me nuts. I don't know which is worse — Audi's rotary dial or the mouse touch pad. In the time it takes to enter a nav destination I could be there. So here's the deal, machine. You set the A8L to where we need to go. Then I'll flog it like Secretariat's jockey getting us there. Everybody's happy.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne as he reviews the latest toys every week.

2015 Audi A8

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $85,100 base ($98,575 as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, turbodiesel V-6

Power: 240 horsepower, 428 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 4,564 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/36 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Lounge-like comfort; Fuel-efficient stump-puller

Lows: Autonomous features need a butler; Frivolous mouse pad takes up space

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★