Over the past few years many companies and organisations have announced they are close to putting a driverless car into production. They all speak of a vehicle that will use satellite navigation to find a destination and radar to monitor its surroundings. A car that will pull up when the traffic stops and move off again when the road is clear. A car that will find a parking space, and reverse into it, all by itself.
But then what? That’s what I’ve never understood. There’s no point sending your car into town to buy a pint of milk because while it will be able to find the right shop and the nearest available parking bay, it will not be able to go inside and actually buy the milk.
Similarly it would be able to find your office but then it would spend all day just sitting outside. It wouldn’t be able to go to your desk and answer all the emails. A driverless car, then, is completely useless. You have to be inside or there’s no point. And if you’re inside it’s not driverless.
That said, I’m sure there are plenty of people who would very much like to step into their car after a hard day at work, tell it to go home and then curl up in the back for a little sleep. But could you actually nod off? Would you trust the on-board systems to behave? Really? You’d put your life in the hands of the same people that built your laptop?
I flew to the Isle of Man last weekend on a brilliant little aeroplane. It had a whizz-bang glass cockpit and was completely up to date in every way. So the pilot set the autopilot and we sat back for a chat. Things were going very well until we descended out of the clouds near the island’s airport to find that we were heading straight for a hill. If he’d been asleep we’d have hit it.
Which brings me to the Audi RS 5 cabriolet. This has something called active lane assist, a technology that’s not new. But systems we’ve seen in the past simply vibrate the steering wheel if sensors think you’re straying out of your lane on a motorway. The system in the Audi is different: if it thinks you’re drifting out of your lane, it actually takes control of the steering and puts you back on the straight and narrow.
I tested it on the Westway in London and was amazed because it simply stayed in the outside lane, steering nicely round the long left-hander. I didn’t have to do a thing, so I thought, “Brilliant. I can get on with some texting . . .”
But no. Because after a short while a message flashed up on the dashboard saying I now had to take manual control of the steering. What’s the point of that? Why build a car that is capable of steering itself but after a minute or so can’t be bothered?
I’m afraid it gets worse. Because later, on the M40, I decided to pull into the middle lane, and the steering wheel wouldn’t really let me. It was gently pushing the wheel to the right, thinking that I’d nodded off and that my life needed saving.
It was not a big push. It was like arm-wrestling a child. You can overcome the system but unless you indicate — which tells the sensors you’re moving on purpose — it argues every single time you cross a white line. This started to drive me mad. I therefore decided to turn it off. But I couldn’t find out how to do it. And that made even my hair angry.
You spend an extra £370 on this system, hoping that one day it will save your life. Then it will drive you so mental that you’ll want to drive into a wall and kill yourself. And it won’t let you. My advice then is simple. There are many options you can have on the RS 5. But don’t, whatever you do, buy this one.
Which brings me on to the nutty question. Should you be buying an RS 5 cabriolet at all? Well, let’s start with the engine. It’s a joy. To meet stringent emission regulations, most new engines are turbocharged. You can’t really tell. There’s no lag any more between putting your foot down and the commencement of acceleration. And yet . . .
When you put your foot down in the Audi and that naturally aspirated 4.2-litre engine is energised, it’s just better. You can’t put your finger on why this is so. But it is. This is a tremendous engine — one of the very best in production today.
And the rest of the car? Well, that depends. If you have the on-board drive control software set to Comfort, it’s a fairly quiet, reasonably comfortable boulevardier. You don’t drive it in this mode so much as promenade in it.
But if you engage the Dynamic mode, the feel of everything changes. The engine becomes more urgent, the gearbox snaps to attention. Even the noise is different. In Comfort mode the RS 5 is quiet, like a nuclear power station. You sense rather than hear the grunt being produced. But in Dynamic mode it’s like a nuclear power station that’s blown up. It’s loud and a bit scary. I liked it.
It encourages you to drive a little more quickly, to explore the outer limits of the four-wheel-drive system. But sadly I can’t report on how the handling stands up to right-foot brutality because the active lane assist system kept steering me where it wanted to go, rather than what was necessary.
It’s remarkable, really, that I liked this car so much when it had such a deeply annoying feature. It would be like AA Gill enjoying his dinner, despite the large globule of chef phlegm that was clearly visible on the potatoes.
Perhaps it’s because my week with the car coincided with what the government laughably called a “level-three heatwave”. A convertible this good in weather that sensational was a joy. It made you question the need for a driverless car. It would be like having driverless sex. Why give over such pleasurable duties to a machine?
I had that canvas top up and down like a pair of whore’s drawers and I learnt many things; that you can raise or lower it at speeds of up to 31mph, that when it’s up, it keeps the sound on the outside and the chill on the inside. And that when it’s down, you get a burnt face.
I also decided that Audi does a pretty good interior these days. Everything is sensibly placed, intuitive and well screwed-together.
There are a couple of things that grate, though. It’s not the best-looking car in the world. It comes across as heavy, which it isn’t especially. And it is bit pretentious. But worse than this is the price. It’s not even adjacent to cheap. In fact, it’s on the wrong side of bleeding expensive.
However, until BMW gets round to launching a convertible version of the forthcoming M4, this is as good as it gets. Just remember: do not fit the active lane assist. And spend the £370 you save on Red Bull. That way, you won’t need it.
Great car, shame about the options.
Audi RS 5 cabriolet quattro 4.2 FSI
- £68,985 (without options)
- 4163cc, V8
- 444bhp @ 8250rpm
- 317 lb ft @ 4000rpm
- 7-speed S-tronic
- 0-62mph in 4.9sec
- Top speed:
- 26.4mpg (combined)
- Road tax band:
- l (£475 for first year)
- L 4649mm, W 1860mm, H 1386mm
Published August 8, 2013