OPINION | Electric cars are on the way to SA – why and when?

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Earlier this week, Fin24 reported Ford, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and Volvo signed an emissions pledge during the COP26 climate talks, committing themselves to "work towards reaching 100% zero emission new car and van sales in leading markets by 2035 or earlier".

Wheels24 columnist Guy Dormehl has owned an electric BMW i3 for the past few years, and has a solar-powered system at home. He shares his findings with Wheels24 readers, and will delve into the matter of electric mobility in South Africa with a series of regularly bi-weekly articles. 

Humankind owes a considerable debt to the internal combustion engine (ICE). It revolutionised civilisation allowing mass transport at brisk speeds for people and goods. It replaced the horse – much to the horse's benefit! 

The sound and smell of ICEs are now woven into our cultural belief systems as much as has been the smell of horse sweat, droppings, leather and hay before. From the nighttime throb of a single cylinder Lister generator on a farm to the wailing racing engines, this had become the odour and soundtrack to our lives. Our cities rumble to the continuous sound of engines – early in the morning, the city's atmosphere is the awakening of numerous engines of all sizes—a murmuring of lifeblood flowing in the streets. 

bmw i3
Wheels24 reader Guy Dormehl's eco system for his BMW i3.

READ | Ford, Mercedes and GM sign emission pledge - but Toyota, Volkswagen and Nissan opt out

Modern petrol and diesel cars are a paragon of engineering excellence and quite astonishing in their abilities. That the manufacturers can produce such complex motors and drivetrains, at costs that beggar believes. Despite this, modern cars are extraordinarily reliable. They deserve all the accolades they receive, and it is no wonder that they entrance so many people. 

So what now is driving this seemingly inexorable worldwide conversion to Electric Vehicles (EVs)? And why was there such an innate push back to this change? 

People are primarily conservative and resist change – it is unsettling to ditch what we know and accept (or even love). People feel threatened, especially if the immediate impact seems to be directly on their livelihoods or lifestyle. Vested interests with the massive financial investment will feel their influence and power slipping away. For more than a century, a whole economic ecosystem has developed around it – oil and car industries, dealers; mechanics; tuners, and so on. Many of these may now feel threatened by the advent of electric transport. 

Fear of the unknown is easy to leverage to discredit new ideas. 

It is an uphill battle for change, especially when the incumbents are so established and the interlopers are still plagued with scepticism, doubts and unresolved problems. It takes visionary people and progressive authorities to assist the change. 

So what has driven this most massive shift in transport for over a century? It is a groundswell of confluent circumstances – mainly driven by the need to try to save humanity from global warming. But hand in hand with this greater theme is the desire to make our cities more liveable. 

LAHORE, PAKISTAN - NOVEMBER 01: Commuters ride alo
Commuters ride along a road under heavy smog conditions in Lahore, Pakistan on November 01,2021.The provincial capital Lahore on Sunday again ranked second among the top five cities with bad air quality in the world.

This was ironically highlighted - not by any engineering or climate issue - but by the Covid pandemic. Suddenly in the first half of 2020, cities worldwide were emptied of most of the vehicles during the stringent lockdowns. Quiet returned to the streets, and heat and fumes subsided. People started to smell the grass and plants again and walk in the streets. Many felt their health improved. An almost rural idyll feel entered cities - and people liked that. Of course, transport is an essential part of economic activity, so vehicles re-appeared once the lockdowns were eased, but there had been a mental and emotional change in attitudes. 

How can we have transport and cleanliness in cities? There had been just enough emergence of electric vehicles for there to be a glimmer of light. The public saw a new possibility even if it still seemed both illusive and elusive. 

Several electric cars will be introduced to the local market in 2022, making the choice of EVs much bigger than present. Other than affordability, what would it take for you to consider or to purchase an electrical vehicle here in SA? Please email us your thoughts here, or use the comments section below.

This coincided with the ever-increasing concern about general global pollution and CO2 emissions. Transport and power generation are two significant contributors – mainly coal and fossil fuels. Sustainable energy - Green Power (for want of a better word) - became the buzzword, and alternatives to coal and fossil fuels for energy generation has been sought. Solar and windpower heading the charge, but all this takes time. One of the shortcomings of green energy is its unpredictability and coping with peak demands. Storage options, including batteries, can come to the rescue. 

Vehicles contribute to emissions to a large extent and are effectively small power plants on wheels charging around our cities and countryside, polluting in their wake. EVs were starting to look like a good option, albeit with stumbling blocks along the way.  The primary issue is the cost and availability of batteries. Indeed, EVs may merely shift the pollution elsewhere, but two important facts make this argument irrelevant. 

Firstly whether the overall pollution decreases enough to warrant the change-over, the vast improvement to the 'liveability and health of densely populated areas is so significant that it trumps any negativity. Cities need to be healthier and cleaner in the future, primarily as more and more of the population is destined to live in cities. 

05 October 2021, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rottweil: Whi
Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rottweil: White smoke is coming from the exhaust of a diesel.

Secondly, heaven and earth are being moved to clean up central power generation – and most grids in the world are constantly improving. As this happens, every EV on the road, however old or dilapidated, will clean up in conjunction with the grid. This is the opposite of what happens with ICE vehicles which are apparent when caught behind an old smoking car or truck! 

The other driver in this shift is that EVs are just fundamentally better than ICE vehicles – an unusual win-win situation. People who make the jump to EVs are overwhelmingly unlikely to ever go back to ICE cars out of choice. We are not being asked to replace some wonderful product with some awful vanilla and unsatisfying option. 

The old adage is particularly true for cars – all established technology will be towards the end of its development path. In contrast, new tech is, by definition, right at the beginning and may have shortcomings, but there are now lots of low-hanging fruit to pluck and soon overtake the old tech! 

To put all the foregoing into context – would you run your vacuum cleaner on a small petrol engine at home? Or your power tools? Or, heaven forbid, your toothbrush or hairdryer! Would you sleep in your shut garage for the night with your car running? 

Why aren't all new cars already electric? In a nutshell – batteries and cost. The matter of when will EVs be 'mainstream' will be addressed in the following article, particularly in the South African context – and why is SA lagging?

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Prices should be more affordable
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9% - 140 votes
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11% - 163 votes
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