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SA’s electric car dreams written off
Wednesday, 04 July 2012 00:00
Written by Martin Czernowalow
South Africa’s ambitious foray into the space of electric vehicles (EV) has come to a sticky end, as the company that manufactured the Joule – the electric car that was so proudly touted at international motor shows a few years back – has finally closed its doors.
In April, Cape Town-based Optimal Energy announced that it would shelve the Joule project – after seven years and an investment of R300 million – and said it would instead refocus its efforts on electric buses.
However, about two weeks ago, the company finally threw in the towel, as the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) decided to pull their support for Optimal Energy’s plan B.
I’m not a fan of electric cars (few petrolheads are, I suppose), and openly scoffed at Optimal Energy production target of 50 000 units. In a column about three years ago, I argued against a locally-manufactured electric car, based on the fact that we, as a country, are simply not ready to embrace electrically-powered transportation. We do not have the infrastructure to support a mass roll-out of EVs, the suggested pricing of the Joule was quite ridiculous and EV technology still has some way to go before it can even come close to replacing conventional personal transportation.
Evidently, this was not a popular view to hold, as the backlash from bunny-huggers and blindly-patriotic readers, who didn’t think I should be dumping on a proudly South African technology showcase, was severe, to say the least.
Flash forward to 2012, and government, via the IDC and TIA – justifying its decisions to pull the plug on further funding of Optimal Energy’s EV dreams – cited a lack of support infrastructure, technology that is still at an early developmental stage, and pricing as the main reasons.
Now, I don’t want to say “I told you so…” Well, perhaps just a little. But the point is that everyone involved in this project should have seen it coming. Am I happy that the Joule project failed? No, I’m not.
It’s never a good thing to waste hundreds of millions of rands, years of research and development and to see nearly 100 people out of a job. But the writing was on the wall and someone – from government – should perhaps answer as to why so much money and effort was thrown at what was always going to be a pipedream.
Not that government really feels it needs to be particularly forthcoming about what it does with taxpayers’ money. In case you may have forgotten, September 2010 saw the introduction of a carbon emissions tax, which was slapped onto the price of new vehicles.
As there are no real clean energy initiatives being driven by the state, it remains a mystery as to where this money going. Apart from lining government’s coffers, your guess is as good as mine. What we do know is that it’s certainly not going towards the development of EVs.
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