Why SA’s electric car is not going anywhere
Optimal Energy chief executive Kobus Meiring is a disappointed man. The company is the developer of South Africa’s electric car but it officially closed on Friday with the loss of about 60 jobs. This follows its failure to get further funding from the government and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).
Meiring was disappointed the project would not continue but also grateful for the government support of the vision to develop an electric car. He acknowledged Optimal Energy would never have got as far as it did in developing the Joule without government support.
Meiring was previously the programme manager for the Rooivalk helicopter and project manager of the Southern African Large Telescope project.
He said the official reason provided for not supporting the electric car project any further was that the commercial risk was too high.
Meiring said the IDC was very vocal that the project needed more support than could be provided by the new industrial policy action plan and that it should be put on the national agenda and budgeted for in the national budget.
From an IDC perspective, if the government could not do this, the IDC could not continue to fund the project, he said.
“We put forward a proposal to develop electric city buses but the IDC rejected it. I still think it’s a sound idea from a technical and business perspective. It puts the ‘green’ and fuel efficient stuff together. I’d definitely like to still try and pursue it,” he said.
Policy issues featured strongly in a discussion with Meiring about the project.
For instance, the Trade and Industry Department had been working on an electric car policy for the past two years but it had not yet been published.
“In a fast moving world, this is not the recipe to get things done,” he said.
Meiring agreed that unless there was a serious rethink by the government, South Africa would only get imported electric vehicles.
“The market is ready for them, the application is perfect and the technology ready.”
Meiring said he came up with the idea of developing an electric car in 2004 when he was nearing the end of the Rooivalk project, admitting that he was always interested in “renewable things”.
Huge progress had also been made with lithium-ion battery technology, which made an electric car possible, he said.
Meiring said technically there was not much he would do differently in regard to the development of the Joule if he had the chance to do it again.
He said that when the project started it had strong political support at cabinet level from then science and technology minister Mosibudi Mangena, stressing the importance of government support in enabling such a project to find a private sector partner.
Mangena resigned following the ANC’s decision to recall former president Thabo Mbeki.
Meiring said there were similarities between the electric vehicle project and the development of the Rooivalk.
However, Meiring said the Rooivalk was developed only for South Africa, with exports an afterthought.
“From the start we knew we would have to export the Joule to get the right volumes and understand the market upfront and design it for that market.
“We identified Europe and England as the start-up market and the vehicle was specified as a European vehicle in look, feel and performance,” he said.
Meiring said the parallel between the Joule and the Rooivalk was that in the aviation industry there was not a single example of an aircraft being successfully exported without it first being sold in its own country first.
The government was the single biggest procurer of vehicles and could have provided a tremendous kickstart for the Joule and the same policy could have been applied to electric buses, he said.
“The buses are not mass produced assembly. You can make a business out of it at lower volumes and the BRT (bus rapid transit) systems in the various cities is a big enough market for the business. Once it’s proven in our own market, it’s easier to access the export market,” he said.
Meiring said decisions were often taken “at a higher level” against proceeding with a project after a world-class prototype had been done in South Africa because it then required a large amount of money to commercialise it.
He cited the closure in 1994 of the battery department at the CSIR, which had done substantial battery research and had some of the first patents for lithium ion batteries.
Mike Thackeray, who was head of the department, moved to the Argonne National Laboratory in the US and is now a distinguished fellow and senior scientist in the Electrochemical Energy Storage Department in the chemical sciences and engineering division at the laboratory.
“There we had an amazing opportunity if you consider how big the lithium ion battery market is today. There are a few examples of good prototypes not being commercialised.
“In a certain sense we are reliving the Verwoerdian philosophy where you don’t have to teach mathematics and science because you can import the clever ideas from Europe and the US. It’s a pity and you lose out on a big opportunity,” he said.
The government recently pulled the plug on the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) nuclear energy project but Meiring stressed the differences between that and the Joule.
“We spent R300 million and built a number of customer-ready vehicles. The proof of concept was there. The PBMR spent about R9 billion and never reached proof of concept.
“From that point of view, the Joule was substantially more mature and market ready and had detailed industrialisation plans with contracts negotiated and in place with suppliers and contractors.
“The technical risk of the Joule was also much lower than the PBMR and involved much lower costs,” he said.
Meiring has strong views on what the unplugging of the Joule project means for South African engineers and scientist and whether they will still in future be able to follow their dreams in the country.
The closure of the Joule project was definitely a detractor for other projects like this starting from scratch, he said.
Meiring said there was a strong view in the motor industry in South Africa that the industry should not try and do any development work locally but leave it to other countries, such as Japan or Germany.
However, the motor industry was one of the biggest commercial operations in the world and a large creator of work.
The country was losing out “big time” if it was only going to be a supplier of cheap labour and manufactured goods based on other people’s designs.
Meiring stressed that comparable emerging economies, such as Malaysia, South Korea, India and countries in South America decided they needed to move into manufacturing but had control over their own brand.
“Unless you control your own brands and intellectual property, you are not in control of that. One of the biggest manufacturing sectors is not in control of South Africa but the overseas principals (of the motor manufacturers).
“Hyundai and Kia were nowhere 20 years ago and are now one of the fastest-growing brands and in some countries one of the biggest marques. Nationally you have to have the will to make this happen,” he said.