Doubts Grow Over SA's Electric Car

It will be make or break for the Joule electric passenger vehicle in 2012, says maker Optimal Energy CEO Kobus Meiring.
“I’m a bit frustrated with the funding process – it is taking longer than I had originally aimed for – but I’m hopeful government will this year provide the funding necessary to commercialise the car,” he says. “We need to become a line item in the budget. The Joule is one of the top two or three value-for-money projects on government’s books that can deliver the job opportunities and low-carbon economy it seeks.”
One positive indication that the Joule may be increasing in status among government decision-makers, is that its creator, Optimal Energy, has been asked to exhibit the vehicle at the occasion of President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address at Parliament in February. This follows the display of three Joules at the COP 17 event in Durban last year.
Industrialising the Joule will cost a purported R3.5-billion, with the establishment of a plant to build the car for local and export markets requiring another R3.5-billion. “We need to look at the Joule as another Sasol type project, where government supports it for 10, 20 or 30 years because it is of national interest to do so. If we build 50 000 cars a year, exporting 40 000, all with 70 per cent local content, it will create many local job opportunities and industries,” motivates Meiring.
The last R2-billion funding required in the R9-billion budget envisaged to bring the Joule to market, will focus on retail and after-sales service which, according to Meiring, “could easily be borrowed”.
“We have a number of investors interested in the Joule,” he adds, “but they typically want government to put in 33 per cent to 50 per cent of the money first. We need about R3-billion to R4-billion from government, and we need an irrevocable commitment from government on providing the money. We either need a guarantee, black on white, or we need the money itself. It’s no longer enough to say that it is a good project.”
Should government commit financially to the Joule’s development, it could come to market in 2015, or 2016, says Meiring, by which time electric vehicles should be fairly mainstream people movers. While Optimal Energy awaits the outcome on decisions regarding government funding, it is working on seizing spin-off opportunities from the development of the Joule’s drive, energy and vehicle integration systems, adds Meiring.
“When it comes to system integration South Africa punches far above its weight. We always have too little money, so we have to make do with the resources we have, which makes our engineers excellent at seeing the whole picture, and how things fit together.” Unveiled for the first time in 2008, Optimal Energy aims to develop the Joule as South Africa’s first locally developed electric vehicle.