We're all accustomed to the idea that technology improves incrementally. Apple's new product announcements are as regular as clockwork, with new features and functions cloaked in a veil of strict secrecy until the CEO takes the stage to reveal them. In the auto industry, things are slightly different. To a certain extent, technology is strait-jacketed by legislation, and while something might be technically feasible, the means of mass-producing is the stumbling block. In advance of March's Geneva Auto Show, Audi showcased seven future technologies, with a rough roadmap as to when and how they would be implemented.
The driver of tomorrow can expect - legal hurdles notwithstanding - cars that park themselves (scurrying off into special garages without the need for a driver to guide them), charge wirelessly using magnetic coils embedded in parking spaces, use OLED technology for lighting and displays (just like your smartphone) and be fashioned from lighter, stronger materials and components. No massive surprises, perhaps, but unlike in the world of consumer technology, the wait for some of these particular innovations will be in years, not months.
Showcasing future innovation also highlights the current state-of-the-art, and one aim of all this techno talk is to encourage buyers into the company's existing models in the hope they like the look of the upgrades. Right now, we have cars like the new Audi A6 Avant, a massively slick estate car that represents the current status quo for the company's high-end offerings. Being Audi, that bar is set quite high.
The A6, like many of its stablemates, is an evolutionary design. The company rarely starts from scratch, except with all-new products, so there's a close relationship between the current generation (introduced in 2011) and that which has gone before. Proportions and general detailing are all instantly Audi, but there's a taut, stretched feeling in the way the sheet metal cloaks the car beneath it; from front three-quarters it's almost Zeppelin-like in suggestion of a bulging, tightly contained enclosure.
Inside, the old Audi mastery is immediately evident. Everything is ergonomically sound and deliciously tactile, while (mostly) heedful gadgets abound, from the way buildings are rendered in 3D on the satnav to the discrete heads-up display, integrated night vision cameras. Audi has also seen fit to load their test car with every conceivable option, taking its price from a base £41K to a remarkable £78,745. Technology does not come cheap.
Unappealing quirks include an intrusive transmission tunnel that cramps your left foot, and stop-start technology that is a very obvious presence. This is a very quick car, but it's not a sports car. Even with the dials switched round to 'dynamic', the steering and chassis just aren't set up for diving into the corners.
The 3.0 litre diesel means the A6 is never going to be wanting for power but the way it's delivered manages to steadfastly avoid any associations with adrenaline. That's no bad thing - not every car needs to be a hidden hotrod, but it makes us question whether the 2.0 litre diesel version isn't a more sensible choice.
If you really need more power, then the S6 will provide the focus, whereas (yet) more practicality will be served up by the forthcoming A6 allroad quattro, which provides the best alternative yet to a full-sized SUV.