File image: Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab. (IOL).
CAPE TOWN - The newly announced taxi-recapitalisation programme is a perfect opportunity for South Africa to create the first successful African electric vehicle (EV).

Instead of encouraging the sourcing of vehicles from the usual suspects, the Transport Department together with the taxi industry should embed technology in the process of improving the taxi industry in South Africa.

The local transport industry should dust off the Joule plan and turn it into a new taxi plan for South Africa. There’s a need to learn from what worked with the Joule and avoid the mistakes that led to its failure.

The Joule was South Africa’s answer to the question of developing an African car and in the process address the climate challenge. The Joule was created by a company called Optimal Energy, which had the mission of developing a South African electric vehicle.

In this project, they were also joined by the South African government through its innovation and funding agencies as well as the University of the Western Cape and University of Stellenbosch.

The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) had a stake in the company. The consortium that created the Joule understood that in future, energy would be expensive, efficiency important and sustainability a key to business success.

Today, there’s no doubt that EVs are the future of vehicles. After six years this company had 108 employees and an annual budget of R50million, few prototypes of the car and intellectual property (IP). Then the government pulled a plug on this project for reasons that were sound at the time.

The process of developing the Joule had ups and down, which were costly. The IDC had provided most of the funding and mindful of the losses they had incurred from the government’s cancellation of the PBMR nuclear project, decided to halt any further investment in Optimal Energy.

In the absence of cash to pay employee salaries and with no alternative funding plan, the company closed voluntarily in June 2012.

Although the Joule project was closed down in 2012, its intellectual property still exists and can be re-used and improved for a new project.

The South African government needs to make this IP available to the taxi industry to develop a new electric taxi in South Africa.

Past failures and lessons should lessen the amount of time it would take to develop such a product.

Past mistakes should inform the process going forward.

The commercialisation of this IP through the development of an eTaxi will lead to unforeseen economic impact, technology innovation and job creation for South Africa.

The Taxi Recapitalisation programme should not be wasted, it should be used as a catalyst for a new industry driven by technology for the benefit of the taxi industry and the transport sector in general.

No amount of talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will deliver economic benefits and enable South Africa to be relevant in the future.

Only big and bold action will ensure that South Africa has a stake in the 4IR economic pie.

The eTaxi can be a catalyst for innovation and economic development if executed with future economic benefits in mind.

Wesley Diphoko is editor-in-chief of The Infonomist. Follow him on Twitter via @WesleyDiphoko

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