Here is what’s holding electric cars back in South Africa

Electric cars are going to have a profound impact on some South African industries, even if they’re not yet close to dominating the market, says Wayne Mccurrie, a fund manager at Ashburton Investments.

Electric vehicles pose an interesting prospect for investors, with the rapidly advancing technology in batteries and recharge capabilities driving the evolution of the automotive and manufacturing sectors.

However, these developments are still a long way from becoming the standard in developed countries, and even further away in places like South Africa, where our dependence on coal power and lack of sufficient electric infrastructure are significant hurdles to the adoption of electric cars.

According to Mccurrie, despite these ‘truths’, electric vehicles are here to stay – and the evolution of electric vehicles will have the largest and most significant impact on South Africa’s already struggling platinum group metals and manufacturing sectors.

“The sooner these vehicles gain traction, the closer the (platinum) sector comes to a potential demand cliff. Also, petrol vehicle production remains an important industry locally and mass adoption could have devastating consequences for the industry,” he said.

But these are future problems, Mccurrie said, and the local case for electric vehicles is still not looking favourable, when compared to traditional vehicles.


Read: Why South Africa is not ready for electric cars


According to Mccurrie, even with strides in tech, running and charging an electric vehicle is only as good as the power network and battery technology allows. More specifically, to be efficient, you would need an industrial-strength power supply in your home, and around the country.

“While a few countries have charging stations dotted around the place, the current distribution infrastructure is relatively small compared to petrol stations. Even converting existing petrol infrastructure will require a massive investment in electricity distribution and generation.

“Current power supply at parking lots, and either at retail destinations or workplaces, will also probably be insufficient,” he said.

Currently, this is how electric cars stack up to traditional vehicles:

  • Time to fill up/charge: It takes say 10 minutes to fill up with petrol and 5 hours for a EV. This means that petrol is 30 times more time efficient.
  • Range on full tank/charge: Petrol is ~1.5 times more efficient.
  • Price: A more affordable electric car has a range of 100 km and takes around 8 hours to fully charge at home, and even these cars are still expensive when compared to similar petrol engines. Tesla’s are 50% more expensive than similar petrol cars.
  • Green: In countries like South Africa (and India, Australia, China etc), where coal is the main source of fuel for power generation, the carbon footprint is roughly equal. The carbon footprint of an electric car In South Africa is five times that of an electric car in Sweden.

Electric vehicles also have other drawbacks, which keep the market extremely limited:

  • Heading off the beaten track (driving in the bush) is out of the question.
  • Towing a trailer or a caravan severely restricts range.
  • Back-yard DIY maintenance and servicing is off the table.
  • The anticipated advancements in technology is perversely a negative against buying an electric car today. There are clearly going to be great advances in EV technology in the years and decades to come. However, this will make the (expensive) car that you buy today quickly obsolete. The likelihood is that as with any technological advance, EV’s may become a more affordable alternative much later in its evolution.

However, even though electric cars currently do not compare favourably to traditional combustion engines on price, range and time, sales of electric vehicles will continue to increase and the relatively small existing market will continue to grow as technology advances.

“Adoption may be much slower than some predict – and while the vehicle manufacturing industry and platinum sector will be relieved by this, much still needs to be done to mitigate the very real future impact EVs will ultimately have,” Mccurrie said.

“The manufacturing industry needs to gear up for potential production shifts while the platinum sector better get a move on in ramping up investment and jewelry demand.”

“The reality is that most big changes tend to be more evolutionary than revolutionary – as is the case with electric vehicles (EVs). Their efficiency will clearly continue to improve over time, but the time scale we need to consider is decades and not just years.”

 


Read: Diesel vs petrol vs electric car sales in South Africa

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