Leaf, i3, I-Pace driven on a SA electric road trip: Here's what could go wrong

Image: Charlen Raymond
Image: Charlen Raymond

The last few years, a significant shift took place in the global automotive landscape. No, not SUVs and bakkies becoming the preferred choice by consumers. No. We’re talking about electrification. In other words, electric vehicles.

The change in thought brought a big-scale shift in how the next generation of vehicles will look, as well as what powertrains will drive these vehicles. Electric vehicles, or EVs as they’re commonly known, are the next wave of vehicles set to dominate the market. And already we can see the influx taking shape in South Africa.

In Europe, the market is miles ahead and the transition has been swift and fast. But South Africa? We’re not quite there, yet role players and industry leaders think otherwise.

To get an idea of just how ready our country is for the next generation of vehicles, we attended a road trip - an electric road trip! - and it sure put the future to the test.

Electric machinery

In celebration of Transport Month (every year in October), we joined the road trippers for the second leg of the trip from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. It’s an 800km which can be tackled in about 8 hours in a conventional car. But we won’t be completing the trip in one day, but rather over two.

Lined up are three BMW i3s, two Jaguar I-Paces, and two Nissan Leafs that’s been shipped in from Japan. Each vehicle comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, but this trip is about more than just driving each one. It's also about getting into the nitty-gritty of understanding the future a bit better.

READ: First electric road trip in SA surges ahead

The i3, on this trip in REX (Range Extender) trim, is powered by an electric battery and a small petrol motor that acts as a secondary power unit in the event that the aforementioned is depleted. The I-Pace and Leaf are both fully electric and rely solely on their batteries for power. All three vehicles set off in complete silence, and a solitary gear provides drive from the engine to the powered wheels. It’s eerie at first, but you soon get a feel for the power delivery and how each vehicle reacts to throttle inputs.

What’s particularly noticeable is that the drive in an electric vehicle differs vastly from that of your conventional vehicle. The acceleration is much quicker, the heavy battery packs add a different dimension to the handling of the cars, and the range on the battery can be modulated by regulating your speed.

Range anxiety 

In the I-Pace, the range on a fully-charged battery is claimed to be 470km. In the i3 REX, it is around 240km (electric) and 120km (petrol). The Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, has to contend with 250km. The issue is, these claimed ranges can only be met when you’re driving at 80 or 90km/h. Do the national speed limit and it decreases tremendously.

To minimise the anxiety you might face for not reaching your destination, Jaguar South Africa installed a massive powerway along some of South Africa’s major highways. Between Cape Town and Johannesburg, on the N1, a number of charging stations have been brought on, as well as on the N2 between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. (For the complete power highway, click here.)

On this trip, the convoy managed to reach the next charging station without trouble and the vehicles could be recharged for the next stint. Interestingly, the majority of charging stations on the public network are 60kWh fast chargers, meaning 100km of range will take around 20 minutes for Jaguar I-Pace owners. And, a charge from 0 to 80% will take around 72min, according to Jaguar SA.

READ: #EVRTAfrica2019 | Halfway from Pretoria to Cape Town in an electric vehicle road trip

But - and there’s always a ‘but’ - Jaguar’s powerway only has one charging station at each point. A station, I might add, that is compatible with BMW, Nissan, and other automakers' electric offerings. With seven cars in our convoy, charging all the vehicles took hours and is this an indication of how things will be when more electric vehicles flood the market. Unless more manufacturers come on board and also install public charging stations, the queues to charge your vehicle will have you waiting for hours on end.

Jaguar South Africa invested R30-million in this highway and it can’t be expected of them to carry the infrastructure alone. To counter this, more manufacturers need to come to the party and ensure that South Africa is ready for the next phase of automotive mobility.

But are we really ready?

South Africa is on the right track with regards to electric mobility, but this trip shed some important light as to how ready we are for an electric future. The vehicles can do a cross country trip of more than 2000km and come out the other side. They have all the comfort you’re used to in a conventional vehicles, and they offer the necessary safety features.

The gripe, however, is that our infrastructure, whether it be unreliable Eskom power or a shortage of power stations, is not up to scratch to support the needs and demands electric vehicles come with. An I-Pace undertaking this journey alone will have no problem driving at 120km/h until the next charging station, but an i3 or a Leaf might not be that lucky. And when you get to a charging station, you better hope there’s not a queue.

We are indeed living in interesting times and the future made its presence felt in South Africa this month. But all stakeholders need to get involved if we’re to ensure that we're on board as the world moves forward.

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