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Audi has voluntarily recalled some of its first electric vehicles over battery issues that could cause fires, though none have yet been reported. The recall affects 1,644 E-Tron electric SUVs, only 540 of which have made it to customers. The German automaker declined to disclose sales figures for the Tesla challenger, but said in April that 20,000 had made advance reservations for the E-tron.
Aarian Marshall covers autonomous vehicles, transportation policy, and urban planning for WIRED.
According to Audi, the problem stems from a faulty grommet seal, which sits in the vehicle’s wiring harness between the charge port and the battery. In at least five vehicles sold worldwide, the grommet has allowed moisture to seep into the battery, risking a short circuit or even a fire. (Neither actually happened.) The E-tron system monitors the battery for moisture, and Audi says a yellow battery warning light should appear if the vehicle’s sensors find something has gone wrong inside.
Recalls, and especially voluntary recalls, are far from unusual: More than 42.6 million vehicles were affected by 899 recalls in 2017. At least 12 electric vehicles have been subject to some kind of recall, though not all concerned the vehicles’ batteries.
Recent well-publicized battery fires in Tesla and NIO electric vehicles have stoked fears about fire risks, even though assessments have suggested that EVs have a comparable or even smaller risk of accidental fire than their gasoline- or diesel-powered cousins. A 2017 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles contain or produce chemicals that can, under very specific conditions, become toxic or cause fires. The US agency recommended manufacturers continue to collaborate and share information on how to safely make and use vehicle batteries.
Last month, Tesla pushed an over-the-air update to the software that manages battery charging and thermal controls in its Model X and S vehicles. The electric automaker told The Verge it updated its software “out of an abundance of caution.”
Audi, meanwhile, will continue to sell and deliver E-trons as it works to resolve its battery issue in the affected vehicles. It says it should know exactly how to repair the issue—and whether the fix is a quick tweak of a replacement of the entire E-tron wiring harness—in six to eight weeks. If affected E-tron owners don’t want to get their vehicles fixed or replaced, the automaker urges them to watch for that yellow warning light; if it comes on, drivers should immediately pull over into an open space and call roadside assistance. Those who opt to have their E-trons repaired will get a loaner vehicle, an $800 cash card, and a free maintenance package.
Audi has poured plenty of money and marketing firepower (sorry) into the E-tron, its entree into the suddenly crowded premium electric SUV market. There’s the Model X, of course, but also the Jaguar I-Pace, and the forthcoming Mercedes-Benz EQC. Porsche has reportedly put its crossover Mission E Cross Turismo concept into production. There have never been as many opportunities to schlep a lot of crud inside an electric vehicle as there are right now. Just watch for those warning lights.
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