Power Play


Where does the market currently stand on EVs? And what are the implications for SA?


Contrary to popular belief, electric cars are older than their internal-combustion brethren. While Karl Benz’s invention and subsequent patent in 1889 is regarded as the first modern automobile, many different iterations of the product had been attempted – to various degrees of success – from around 1672 with Verbiest’s toy car. The first working EV came around the 1830s and, during the early 1900s, these cars became very popular, especially in the United States. However, when Henry Ford revolutionised motor manufacturing with the Model T, petrol cars became much cheaper to buy and run than contemporary EVs, thus spelling the latter’s death knell. Following a short reappearance in the 1970s during the global oil crisis, EVs are now back in sharp focus, fuelled (ahem) by global warming.

Locally, a number of EVs are already on sale, from the Cooper SE to the Taycan. This year we’ll see even more when Audi is likely to launch the E-tron and Mercedes-Benz its EQC. Soon after, we predict a spate of electric vehicles to reach our shores… if carmakers have the guts to make the move.

If we exclude their current high price points, probably the biggest deterrent for potential EV buyers is, of course, a limited driving range. Given that the cars mentioned above cannot achieve a real-world range of 500 km yet (and some far less), consumers are not yet confident enough to dish out the required capital for them. SA has a spatial problem, which means to get anywhere mainly private transport such as taxis and cars have to be used. From the youngster who works in Bloemfontein and has to drive to Limpopo every month to see her parents, to the businessperson who regularly commutes between Durban and Gauteng, distance presents current EVs with serious range questions.

Of course, one obvious solution is to boost charging infrastructure. A company called GridCars is in this space, collaborating mainly with Jaguar Land Rover but its chargers are compatible with BMW and Porsche products, too. However, these public chargers are expensive at R800 000 apiece. Set that against the handful of EVs selling every month and you can see why the investment is not yet worth it. Unfortunately for them, at some point petrol stations will have to make the investment and begin to cater for the EV market.

The Eskom problem is also ever-present. During the third day I tested a Jaguar I-Pace, I could not charge it at JLR’s fast supercharger at its Experience Centre because Eskom had cut power. Some manufacturers like BMW do offer outdoor solar-powered chargers but these are very expensive, take up large spaces and longer to charge.

Earlier on, I mentioned price as a factor. EVs are taxed at 25% import duty in South Africa, which doesn’t assist their affordability case. In fact, the cheapest EV at the moment is the Mini SE, currently listed at R658k. This is hardly the incentive for consumers to even look at EVs, let alone buy them en masse. For the local market, this situation appears to be staying put, meaning only the upper crust will be offered EV alternatives. Add to that the daunting realisation that you have to buy a home charger – upwards of R20 000 – if you don’t have a public one nearby. And even if you do, waiting times are often ridiculous. Once I arrived at a public charger in Melrose Arch and found a queue of three cars. At a fuel station, that would be a five minute wait. Charging an EV from empty to about 80% takes about 30 minutes these days. You can do the calculations.

None of this means EVs won’t succeed They will. Last year, Tesla – the leading manufacturer of EVs globally – sold 499 550 units worldwide. Internationally, most manufacturers are currently selling or launching new EVs this year. Some estimates say that, by 2040, about 80% of all new cars will be EVs. In fact, JLR recently announced that it will become an EV-only brand by 2030. If the infrastructure isn’t in place by then and, if you need to drive your new all-electric Defender from Cape to Cairo, you’d better bring your charging cable, your power bank and, ironically, a petrol-powered generator…

About Thami Masemola

Thami is a media veteran who is absolutely passionate about the automotive industry. In his spare time, he drives cars and tells people about them.