Why electric cars in SA have been slow on the uptake and how it might take public transport to the next level

A Model S electric car of US car maker Tesla leaves a Tesla service centre in Oslo, Norway. In the first half of 2018, Tesla has become the fourth company with the highest number of complaints to the Norwegian Consumer Council. (Pierre-Henry Deshayes, AFP)
A Model S electric car of US car maker Tesla leaves a Tesla service centre in Oslo, Norway. In the first half of 2018, Tesla has become the fourth company with the highest number of complaints to the Norwegian Consumer Council. (Pierre-Henry Deshayes, AFP)

The take up of electric vehicles in South Africa was being severely hampered by the 43% government tax on the price of the vehicles, delegates at the African Utility Week heard on Wednesday.

While most countries around the world had waived import duty on imported electric vehicles in a move to encourage sales, the South African government had refused a request by the local industry to have the tax scrapped or reduced, entrepreneurial consultant Carel Snyman told delegates at the conference.

Snyman, who has previously worked at Eskom and SA National Development Institute (Sanedi), said the rest of the world was moving in the direction of electric vehicles, and many countries had created incentives to stimulate the uptake of electric vehicles. “But in South Africa it is seen as a luxury vehicle and is taxed like one. What we need here is strong leadership in terms of policy about electric vehicles. There are tremendous benefits for the country, particularly a lower cost of transport and cleaner air so less health impacts,” Snyman said.

Impact on fuel sector, power sector

The vehicles should be promoted not just as passenger cars, but also for public transport, taxis and freight trucks, he said.

No electric vehicles are manufactured in South Africa.

Anthony Dane, director of Change Pathways, has done a study for the DTi on the potential impacts of electric vehicle penetration on South Africa.

This included the impact on trade, government revenue, impacts on the fuel sector, the power sector and greenhouse gas emissions.

“We started exploring this and came up with a policy brief. In the local context there will be significant benefits and significant costs, so a transitional plan is critical,” Dane said.

Some of the costs would be to the liquid fuel industry, which employed a significant number of people. There would also be a decrease in government revenue on the fuel.

Lower cost of Public Transport

Dane said one of the benefits, particularly for the poor, would be a lower cost of transport, which made up a significant part of what they spent their money on.

While many people thought only of passenger cars when they thought of electric vehicles, the international market was moving in the direction of electric vehicles for public transport and freight trucks.

He said not much was known about the local market, and how people would react to electric vehicles.

The study had resulted in an “overall sense that there will be winners and losers” in the transition to electric vehicles.

“Government needs to be proactive. There is no silver bullet for the transition, you need to consider all the aspects,” Dane said.

Public Ignorance

Wynand Goosen, CEO of Africa Focus Consulting, said another big hurdle to the uptake of electric vehicles locally was public ignorance. The general public knew little about them.

Goosen warned that because the trend internationally was towards electric vehicles, South Africa could become a “dumping ground” for combustion vehicles.

“Government must step up and promote electric vehicles and inform the public. They should look at the taxi industry, start at that level. Uber drivers don’t have a clue what’s out there,” Goosen said.

He believed the market would drive the transition to electric vehicles, as consumers would act on “what’s best for their pocket”.

Snyman said he had bought a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle, which at that time was R150 000 more expensive that a VW Golf. But over five years, the Nissan was cheaper and over 10 years, the Nissan was half the price.

His “payback” time was four years.

“It is 10 times cheaper per kilometer to drive an electric vehicle than a petrol car,” Snyman said.

Charging Stations

At the moment, there were several charging stations that were free. 

The vehicles could also be charged at home with a 15-amp plug – which took seven hours if the battery were depleted.

It used about two-thirds of the power that a 150-litre geyser would use.

There was a move internationally to charge electric vehicles with rooftop solar PV panels, he said.

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