Optimal Energy developed the Joule, which would have been the first electric vehicle to be designed and built in South Africa. Photo: Jeffrey Abrahams
Optimal Energy developed the Joule, which would have been the first electric vehicle to be designed and built in South Africa. Photo: Jeffrey Abrahams

Decade of tech startups: Joule, an African car dream deferred

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published Nov 14, 2019

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CAPE TOWN -  2012 will be remembered as one of the most disappointing moments in the history of South African technology startups. 

In 2012 ,the hopes of developing the first African vehicle (electric) were dashed. 

Optimal Energy, which was behind Joule the electronic vehicle, despite the technical and marketing success achieved Optimal Energy was liquidated. Even with a rigorous and successful development process, a strong team of 108 people, substantial

in‐house technology and an impressive network of partners and suppliers, the company lacked local funding and had to close. This development of the Joule taught South Africans some innovations lessons.

The establishment  of Optimal Energy, a start‐up business with the objective of “establishing and leading the Electric Vehicle industry in South Africa and expanding globally”, was considered by many as too ambitious in the African context. The company flourished however, and by December 2010 had four roadworthy prototypes and an astonishing success in the global media. 

The Joule Electric Vehicle was a “born electric” 5‐seater passenger car, sporting a totally new vehicle design incorporating locally developed battery, motor and software technologies.

Optimal Energy was conceived in 2004 with the purpose of developing a South African Electric Vehicle. Although not yet acknowledged by main‐stream scientists there was already a debate on Global Warming and it seemed clear that fossil fuels would become scarce and expensive.

Whereas the 1990’s were marked by the proliferation of the internet and became known as the “information age”, it was apparent that an “energy age” was dawning. This would be an age where energy would be expensive, efficiency important and sustainability a key to business success. Ten years later, it became obvious that EV’s were part of the future. The 75% efficiency of their drive train when compared to the 15% of a conventional internal combustion engine would propel them to success in a fuel‐scarce world. 

In addition, the advances in Lithium‐ion batteries would make it possible to store enough energy to travel hundreds of kilometres on a single charge, more than adequate for a typical daily commute.

This understanding inspired the Department of Science and Technology through the Innovation Fund to invest R15m over three years to complete the first prototype vehicle. The work was done in a consortium formed between Optimal Energy,Stellenbosch University, University of the Western Cape and University of Limpopo. 

The project was aligned to the prevailing government priorities and it seemed clear that the potential job creation, technology innovation and economic potential of the project justified the investment risk.

Unlike most innovation projects where technology is invented and then developed further, Optimal Energy started with the market, social and economic needs for their product, and then determined what the required technologies were. 

A top‐down, user‐centric, Systems Engineering approach was followed, where new technology would only be developed where it presented a clear strategic opportunity. The conventional vehicle engineering (body, chassis and interior), for example, would use mostly existing technologies and off‐the‐shelf components in partnership with existing automotive suppliers. The unique EV systems on the other hand, such as the Battery System, Electric Drive System and Vehicle Control, required new technologies and significant system development.

The Joule EV, was not intended to remain a technology demonstrator, but from the onset was planned to be a commercial success through manufacturing in South Africa.

The reasons for the lack of funding and liquidation of Optimal Energy in June 2012 are complex, but it was undoubtedly another casualty of the Innovation Chasm according to its founders. 

Many hard lessons were learned, a few of which are well documented in media  in the hope that the chasm will eventually be filled permanently by a vibrant product development industry linked to a growing manufacturing and support industry that receives appropriate government funding and policy support. The resulting new products developed will help give the industry a much‐needed competitive advantage that would ultimately lead to greater job creation and economic growth in South Africa.


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