To EV, or not to EV — South Africa’s late to the electric vehicle party and it better get moving

To EV, or not to EV — South Africa’s late to the electric vehicle party and it better get moving

The City of Cape Town (CCT) and its partner GreenCape have just completed a long-term pilot project for fleet electrification, which makes a powerful business case for the procurement of electric passenger vehicles for municipal fleets.

On paper, the numbers speak for themselves: Factoring in the purchase price and operational costs, electric vehicles (EVs) turned out to be more affordable than their internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle equivalents.

The pilot project enlisted the services of the CCT Traffic Department, because it has a higher annual mileage which would improve the business case for electrification, to test five EVs and five ICE vehicles, with comparable performance figures, in real-world conditions over three years, from 2020. 

With a total fleet size of 9,386 vehicles across various departments, the CCT’s vehicle fleet consumed 15.9 million litres of diesel and 6.4 million litres of petrol between October 2021 and October 2022. Refuelling it during this period cost R465-million. Then there’s the estimated 57,314 tonnes of CO2 spewed into the air. The City’s ICE hatchbacks used 1,769,670 litres of fuel, costing around R40-million.

The BMWi3 EVs — discontinued this year — were bought for R608,755 each while the ICE VW Golf GTIs cost R587,951.

To run the Beemer? R0.35 to R0.46/km, so spending R1,000 on electricity would translate into 435kWh of electricity or about 3,319km of EV range, depending on driving style, aircon use, and other factors.

To run the VW Golf GTI cost R2.36/km — based on a price of R22.30 per litre. (Now it’s just shy of R24/litre at the coast.)

Based on these calculations, every R1,000 spent on petrol would translate into 45 litres of fuel or 735km of driving range.

The analysis shows that over seven years, the purchase price plus operational costs of the BMWi3 EV were R768,950, compared to the VW Golf GTI ICE vehicle’s R1,415,281.

This, GreenCape says, makes a strong business case for the electrification of the 477 hatchback vehicles in the CCT fleet, should suitable electric models come on to the South African market.

The Achilles heel remains the availability of a suitable fast-charging network. Range anxiety will turn off consumers, no matter how strong the business case is, how gorgeous the car is and how virtuous you feel driving it.

This writer speaks from experience. Volvo recently gave me a fully electric Volvo C40 P8 Recharge for a week. It’s a sweet, slightly hard drive, with a futuristic interior, vegan upholstery, one-pedal driving, Google Assist and Navigation, powerful Harman Kardon Premium Sound, keyless entry and truckloads of safety features, including a cross-traffic alert to stop drifting, a nifty 360° camera, and then some.

The range is just 330km — not unusual for an EV — and that doesn’t go far. Certainly not up the West Coast to see the flowers, or a leisurely drive to another province, unless you are well-organised and break your trip into chunks, according to available charging facilities.

“You have to plan your trips. If you run out of juice, it’s not as if you can call an Uber to collect you out in the sticks to bring you some fuel. An EV that has run out of charge has to be loaded on to a flat-bed truck — there’s no mobile charging option,” Sean from Volvo informed me. The app Plugshare helps drivers find a charging station.

Now, with each trip, my driving pleasure was tempered with bucketloads of range anxiety. It’s not only about where the nearest charging station is — it’s about charging speed too. Is it a fast-charging 150kW DC station (which can charge the C40 from zero to full in about 30 minutes), an 80KW charger that can boost you to a range of 185km in 30 minutes or a 22kW slow-charger, capable of giving you just 100km in about an hour? What if there’s a power outage?

Stress is a real passion killer. It’s a pity, because EV sales are flying abroad, but in South Africa, we’re celebrating sales figures of just 501 — that’s not fully electric, but new electric vehicles, which include hybrids. Electric vehicles are already at a disadvantage here, because we load import duties on them.

SA is getting more charging stations, the automotive industry body Naamsa announced in August, as the adjudication process for a tender worth hundreds of millions of rand for the installation of more than 100 charging stations on major routes around the country has been completed.

The question is when. And will these be fast-charging or slow, in which case you might as well drive your EV in the city and keep an ICE on ice for more leisurely trips (without range anxiety).

As Mark Raine from Mercedes-Benz told SA Auto week 2023 this week: We all need to invest in the charging stations, to build confidence in the market and jointly drive investment.

And, if you’re late to the party, best you get cracking.

It’s urgent-urgent and now-now — it shouldn’t be never, ever. DM