Audi Brussels plant is giving e-tron battery packs a second life

The e-rickshaw project will offer sustainable mobility solutions to rural India.

By Michael Bettencourt Wheels.ca

Jun 13, 2023 4 min. read

Article was updated 3 months ago

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 Brussels, Belgium – Unlike most car plants far outside major urban city centres, the facility that produces Audi’s newly renamed Q8 e-tron is an easy 20-minute taxi ride from downtown Brussels, still within city limits. Because of the plant’s tight confines, the only way it could grow is up.

Yet this car plant has grown quite a bit already since its earliest, pre-Audi or Volkswagen Group days: it actually started producing vehicles in 1948, starting with large and very American Studebakers, before it began building VW Beetles in the mid-1950s. Then VW officially took over the plant in 1970, but by 2007, when the company announced its imminent closing, auto workers occupied it in protest for 6 months, setting fires and bringing in the highest levels of government to seek some sort of solution for the 5,600 employees at the time.

Fast forward to now, and the Audi plant has gone from producing the German luxury brand’s smallest vehicles, the A1 hatchback, to one of its largest and heaviest: the 2024 Q8 e-tron and Q8 e-tron Sportback. These new Q8 variants are not all-new models, but an evolution of the e-tron all-electric five-seat SUV, now with a new front end, more range and slightly quicker DC fast charging (now up to 170 kW) compared to the e-tron that debuted in 2019.

Audi e-tron

But the next all-new Q8 to come will be all-electric only, said Peter D’hoore, Head of Communications at the Audi Brussels plant. “Once the (next) new Q8 arrives, the combustion one will go away, and it will only be the Q8 e-tron (EV) available,” he said, before a tour of the plant, and a rundown of some of Audi’s sustainability efforts coming out of the site.

The entire visit was clearly an exercise to demonstrate that the upcoming Q8 e-tron is going to be built in an environmentally responsible way: solar panels line the roof of every building except the paint shop, which will be completed by mid-year, while all power not coming from these panels the company purchases from renewable sources.

But Audi and its Environmental Foundation subsidiary is also looking at ways to recycle and re-use EV batteries used in the development mules and near-production versions of current or recent e-tron models, since e-tron batteries in customer vehicles are many years and likely hundreds of thousands of kilometres away from needing replacement and/or recycling.

Audi e-rickshaw

The most visible of these efforts came in the form of Audi’s e-rickshaw project, done in collaboration with a non-profit start-up called Nunam, to create what is very likely the most futuristic-looking and technologically advanced rickshaw in all of India.

Nunam has collaborated with engineers at Audi facilities in Germany as well as Belgium to convert three ready-to-retire (one from 1979!) rickshaws with used e-tron batteries.

Add LED lights up front, a roof using recycled airbag components and some high-visibility neon orange accents to help make busy streets aware of its presence with the relatively quiet powertrain, and the result is literally the Audi of rickshaws, complete with Audi logos front and back. Each one uses a total of 10 kWh of lithium-ion power. Audi estimates between 80 to 110 km of range on a full charge.

There’s also a social component to the three e-rickshaw prototypes, as Nunam plans to provide the rickshaws to women merchants in particular to help them transport goods to market, which also involved organizing their procurement of driver’s licences. These women are mainly from rural areas with intermittent electricity produced by coal-fired sources. Nunam has provided the local partner with solar panels that store emissions-free energy in another old e-tron development pack, which can then be provided to the e-rickshaw overnight when not in use.

“We’re trying to find out how much power the batteries can still provide in this demanding use case,” said Nunam cofounder Prodip Chatterjee.

audi e-rickshaw

A quick spin in one of these e-rickshaws inside the Brussels plant confirmed that the handlebar steering and power provided by these well-used batteries still provided useful power over a brief test loop, though we were warned the brakes are one of the oldest components of the entire design – perhaps to encourage us not to go overboard on any acceleration testing.

Perhaps the most significant technical achievement of this relatively limited testing program of the suitability of second-use batteries is that its results will be available on an open-source platform, at circularbattery.org. So while Audi and its enviro arm fund the project, Nunam will be monitoring the e-rickshaw's performance and range, and making the results available for free globally, to encourage the use and technical knowledge available for other second-use batteries all over the world.

This will be a reality sooner than later, as decade-old Nissan Leafs and Tesla Model S sedans that are still driving fine all over the world start approaching their end-of-life stages.


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