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Electric cars the future - also for SA

Aug 04 2017 06:00
Francois Williams and Dirk Jordaan, Netwerk24

Johannesburg - Britain brought the internal combustion engine closer to its grave when it announced last week that no car fitted with a petrol or diesel engine would be sold after 2040.

Jonathan Freedland, The ­Guardian’s transport journalist called this decision in his column the beginning of the end of the Industrial Revolution. While this might only happen in 24 years' time, the question is how will it affect South Africa?

The Automobile Association (AA) of South Africa said that although the South African government has yet to announce similar steps as its counterpart in Britain, the country could be forced into the era of the electric car just because no other vehicles would be available.

This will not necessarily be a bad move. Several car manufacturers are already gravitating towards electric vehicles.

So much money and time have been invested in electric cars, that these vehicles are already outperforming their diesel and petrol counterparts.

Volvo recently announced that by 2019 all its vehicles will be partly or completely battery-powered.

Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Audi have also all started shifting their energy to Formula E-racing, where electric vehicles race against each other.

BMW is also releasing increasingly more electric models and expects that electric cars will make up between 15% and 25% of its total sales by 2025.

According to the AA there are questions about whether battery-powered vehicles are indeed as environmentally friendly, particularly because of the waste from the production of lithium batteries.

The AA reckons the advantage for South Africa is that it has the opportunity to avoid the growing pains of a total ban on combustion engines and that the country can implement a smoother transition to electric cars than elsewhere in the world.

In 2016 only 100 electric vehicles were sold in South Africa. Also, only two models are locally available - the  BMW i3 and the Nissan Leaf.

The majority of the big manufacturers have taken a wait-and-see approach before committing resources to the development of electric vehicles, but in 2015 the Volkswagen diesel scandal caused people’s distrust in that particular engine to skyrocket.

That apparently motivated manufacturers to accelerate the introduction of electric cars.

The exhaust pipes of a Volkswagen diesel engine in

The exhaust pipes of a Volkswagen diesel engine in Frankfurt, Germany. Germany is considering prohibiting the management of older diesel engines in certain cities to reduce air pollution. Photo: AP

Volkswagen itself is now developing 30 electric models, Renault-Nissan has already invested billions of euro, Nissan’s fully electric-powered Leaf is a pioneer in the industry and Volvo says all vehicles manufactured at its plants after 2019 will have an electric motor. BMW has also just announced that it will be releasing an electric-powered Mini and X3, in addition to its i8 en i3.

Apart from Britain, Norway, France and the Netherlands also indicated that they have plans to phase out conventional petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles.

Also the mayors of Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City said they wanted all diesel-powered vehicles off their roads by 2025.

Apart from BMW, Volvo, VW and Daimler which all have ambitious sales targets for electric cars, Elon Musk’s Tesla remains the biggest disruptor in the industry.

Albert Cheung, ‎Head of Global Analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said although there are many reasons to criticise the decision of France and Britain to ban any new petrol-powered vehicles from 2040, there are also several reasons for the move to electric vehicles.

He believes that even if the plans seem vague and far into the future, now is the time to jump into action to work towards future goals.

Cheung admitted that currently plug-in electric vehicles - those with batteries that need to be recharged - only make up 1% of all new car sales worldwide. But 23 years is a long time and Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s transport team believes that electric vehicles would dominate the market by then thanks to plummeting battery prices and increasing popularity among consumers.   

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla. The traditional car indus

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla. The traditional automotive industry is being disrupted by, among others, the American electric motor manufacturer. Photo: AP

The Bloomberg team believes that China, the US and Europe would represent the core market for electric vehicles, making up more than 60% of sales in 2040.

Cheung said it is not only Bloomberg who has adjusted upwards its forecasts for electric vehicles. Oil-rich BP and ExxonMobil, the OPEC oil cartel and the International Energy Agency have also revised their sales expectations upwards in recent years.

Is Britain on the right path?

Freedland believes the British government’s motives are not quite as noble. While the government wants to lessen “dirty engines” on its roads, it also decided not to electrify long stretches of its railway line. Here diesel-powered locomotives are still used.

“And if we’re talking about threats to air quality, especially in London, why are the Tories still hellbent on a third runway for Heathrow, which will be operating at full capacity come 2040?”

Caroline Lucas, deputy president of the Green Party, said the way people travelled needs a complete review.

Electric vehicles are only as clean as their electricity source, she said. “And currently it appears that our cars will be powered by power derived from shale gas.”

According to Freedland Britain buckled under pressure from other European countries. The UK is still part of the European Union and remains committed to the EU's (very strict) emission reduction rules.

In Europe owners of so- called “green cars” are rewarded with tax breaks, subsidies and other benefits. Motorists with normal cars on the other hand are increasingly penalised with restrictions on where they are allowed to drive and park, as well as additional levies.

In Britain electric cars currently make up  less than 5% of all registered vehicles, because consumers deem the cars too expensive or worry about the lack of charge points.

Petrol and diesel will also soon be phased out in Germany, said Oliver Wittke, chancellor Angela Merkel’s transport advisor. Germany is eyeing 2030 as a possible target for its ban. But 600 000 jobs could be lost if that is implemented.

* For this storyand more business news in Afrikaans, visit Netwerk24.

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