In the run-up to the Detroit Auto Show, there have been a lot of new hoopties sneak-peeked by luxury car companies, but perhaps none as truly hooked up as the new Audi A8. The A8 is arguably this year’s torch-bearer for slick-but-attainable luxury cars: It rolls on an eight-speed gearbox, streams Google Earth maps into its nav system and even does 3-D terrain mapping.
Sure, I already talked about cars once in this Undead Tech series, but this is different. Computerized cars like the ones in that post are practical: the new Chevy Volt lets you pick when it charges the battery, for example, and new Fords let you set different privileges for different keys. Cars like the A8 (and competitors like the BMW 7-series) don’t have to pay homage to practicality: they just do the most advanced stuff their engineers can think of, because, well, they can. And because it’s badass.
Check out this thing, above–it’s the A8’s eight-inch, Google-enabled nav system. It contains an on-board graphics processor and a hard drive, streams music wirelessly from your smartphone, and does way more than you ever realized you needed a car to do. Not only is this thing connected to the Web via a cellular radio, but it lets you plan trips at home on Google Maps and upload them to the car. If you get lost anyway, you can use high-res 3-D images from Google Earth to find your way–all controlled by voice commands, a touchpad, and this multi-function knob (below).
BMW has had something sorta like this for a while: the iDrive system (below), which has been sucking pretty steadily since its introduction in 2001. (Mercedes also has a similar-looking system, without most of the functionality). The Audi serves as a mobile WiFi hotspot, recognizes fingertip handwriting on its touchpad and adds an anti-vibration motor in the steering column meant to cancel out road feedback. On top of all that, Audi has installed a massive 1,400-watt stereo system wired to 19 speakers, and has one of the better pedestrian-detection early-warning systems out there.
It used to be Cadillac that pulled these kinds of stunts. Back in 1910, they debuted the first “car with no crank” that included an electric self-starter. In the 20s, they were the first company to introduce different colored cars while competitors famously offered cars only black. A few years later, they were building 16-cylinder engines. In 1948, Cadillac introduced the first car with tailfins, inspired by the WWII-era P-38 Lightning (both below). At their height, tailfins were so popular that even the Germans were copying them; Mercedes called theirs “Heckflosse” and claimed they were merely practical “sight lines” that helped a driver sense the limits of the car when in reverse. Yeah, right.
In 1957, Caddy introduced the famous Eldorado Brougham, a sweet, swoopy sedan with suicide doors, adjustable air suspension, and–a first in the industry–power seats with programmable memory. In the 70s and 80s, Cadillac pioneered things like airbags, electronic fuel injection, and on-board microprocessors. In 2004, the company showed off this (below): a fighter-jet-like heads-up display (or HUD) for the Cadillac XLR, which projected speed and turn signals onto a specially-laminated DuPont windshield. (Cadillac also offered ambient night-vision on the HUD starting in 2000, and discontinued it after tepid sales.)
Sadly, all that went the way of the dodo with GM’s bungling in the 80s and 90s. While Audi’s advances might be perpetuating the tradition for now, the most hooked-up technology in the new cars of the future may exist outside the cars themselves–in the form of creative energy sources. One example: an environmental group in Brooklyn, New York, has just built itself the first EV charging station in New York City: a completely “off the grid” converted shipping container powered by 235-watt photovoltaic cells. It powers a BMW Mini E, that company’s first electric vehicle, entirely on sunshine.
If this bright green shipping container isn’t the kind of lawn furniture you’re looking for, the Audi A8 starts at around $75,000. If you already have a car you love, you can always cram $25,000 of communications electronics into your $500 Dodge P.O.S. like this guy, whose cockpit is below.