South Africa, Business, Life, etc, Sci-Tech

Lights go off on SA electric car project

By Alex Eliseev 20 April 2012

On the day America’s proud Discovery space shuttle was escorted into a museum to take on its new role as an artefact, news broke that South Africa’s home-grown electric car – the Joule – seems to be heading in the same direction. But without ever being used. ALEX ELISEEV explores what went wrong and what the consequences will be.

The Joule was South Africa’s very own “car of tomorrow”, a chance to dream big and grab a slice of the future. It was to be an electric car for the masses and a gift to mother nature, due to its lack of harmful emissions.

It was developed over many years and at great cost – R300-million at last count – and was proudly unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in 2008.

But yesterday, Business Day reported that “another South African industrial dream has bitten the dust” and that the Joule was being mothballed.

The company behind the car, Optimal Energy, confirmed it was unable to secure the funding needed to turn the prototype into a mass-produced car.

Originally there was talk of 50,000 cars being built each year, but those targets seem to have been completely out of the ballpark once compared to the sales figures of other electric cars already on the market.

Optimal Energy CEO Kobus Meiring explained that the funding problems led to uncertainty about when the dream would become reality, and so they took a decision to change direction.

While the dust covers are pulled over the Joule, the company will now look to developing electric city buses. Meiring says this is an exciting venture because of government’s focus on upgrading bus networks (think Rea-Vaya).

He also believes that some of the technology developed for the Joule will be applied to the buses and will cut down on development time and costs.

“It’s not like we’re starting from scratch,” Meiring says. “It’s very much a running start.”

But the questions remains: Has all the money, time and effort spent on developing the Joule been wasted? Was it a healthy process for South Africa to go through, or was it the equivalent of North Korea’s rocket disintegrating over the ocean? And finally, what exactly was its Achilles heel?

Simon Gear, a science and environment correspondent has test-driven the Joule and reported on it extensively. He says while the country gave the project a “really good punt”, it never managed to overcome the price hurdle.

In other words, for a car like the Joule – a fairly average looking, “sweetly designed” hatchback – to compete against others in its class would have necessitated it being significantly cheaper. But with talk of it retailing at over R200,000, it simply stood no chance.

Having said that, Gear does not believe the exercise was a waste of time.

“It’s important we have a stab at these kinds of engineering projects, which are never a bad thing for the country,” he says. “Let’s hope lessons have been learnt and the next endeavour makes more sense from a market point of view.”

It seems that, unlike the famous 1948 Tucker Sedan, which was designed by Preston Tucker but never produced en masse, the Joule just failed to crack the price puzzle.

But that’s not the whole story. A respected researcher in the field of electric vehicle technology in South Africa, who prefers to remain anonymous but whose identity is known to us, suggests that those behind the Joule made some strategic gambles (about the cost and evolution of technology, as well as people’s appetite to pay more for electric cars) but these did not realize in time to make the project a success. The researcher says that electric technology, as it stands today, is really only suitable for vehicles that are either light (450kg and under) or are expensive high-performance sports cars.

The reason for this is that if the car is light, it can take advantage of existing technology, which has dropped in price over the years. If it’s a super-car, it can be sold for over a million Rand, which would make more business sense.
In his opinion, the Joule (1 200kg) came in somewhere between these two requirements, in an industry where established companies were already battling to get people to pay more for electric cars. The cost of industrialising the Joule – estimated at around R9-billion – also apparently scared away government investment.

Motoring journalist and advanced driving instructor, Rob Handfield-Jones, is calling for an inquiry into the money spent on the Joule.

“In the fullness of time, ‘mothball’ will turn out to be a euphemism for ‘cancel’,” he says. “Both the company and the IDC (Industrial Development Corporation) should be called to account for wasting R300m on a pipe dream…”

But according to Gear, the silver lining lies in the new direction chosen by Optimal Energy. In his opinion a green future consists of more public transport and less private vehicles.

“Electric buses make absolute sense. They run on short routes in a localised area,” he says. “But once again it will come down to the price.”

Meiring, meanwhile, remains convinced that the window of opportunity for a South African electric car is not closed. He says the international market is growing slower than anticipated, which is working in their favour.
“We still have hope for the Joule,” he says.

The project’s main funders were the IDC and the Department of Science and Technology. The IDC will continue looking for funds while the department appears to have been in it for the research and development part, and is less concerned with seeing the Joule out on the streets.

So what will the Joule’s legacy be? If you ask Gear, the project gave “us a chance to dream a little bigger”. If you ask Handfield-Jones, he’ll say it gave birth to another white elephant. And the researcher will pose questions about whether the Joule will contribute to the government losing appetite for electric cars and the technology it requires.

Only time will tell. DM



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