Along with the rise of Tesla, the push for electrification is starting to gather momentum (especially in Europe) as major car manufacturers commit to an electric future. How does this future translate into a South African context and, indeed, has the end date of the car, as we know it, been set? Motoring journalist and regular Cars.co.za contributor, Lance Branquinho, speculates...
With companies such as Tesla spearheading the Electric Vehicle (EV) revolution, having recently launched its new battery-powered Model 3 for the masses, the reality of mainstream electrification appears to be closer than we realise, or is it? Committing to a date is a manner of teasing fate. Humans are always humbled to failure. We try and time the market, and lose money. We attempt to time the traffic and end up becoming it. We then believe policymakers when they say that none of us will be able to buy a new internal combustion car by 2040.
You know the date, it’s trended on Twitter and become a predictive text feature in Google’s search bar. It’s the date by which the British government promises it will make conditions impossible for anybody to buy a new petrol- or diesel-powered passenger vehicle in the United Kingdom.
Mass electrification of cars is said to spell the end of the internal combustion engine by the year 2040, but can you believe it?
Why should we be bothered about 2040? There is a closer date, which is set to alter our driving destiny too, and that's 2025, the year by which Norway wants an electric-vehicle(EV)-only new car market. But Norway is different to us in the one way that Britain isn't: the side of the road we drive on. This is the crucial bit of Britain’s 2040 announcement and one that South African car enthusiasts should consider: a pivotal right-hand-drive (RHD) car market is plotting and legislating against internal combustion cars. What happens in Britain, eventually happens to us too, because the Queen’s island is a lead market for RHD product planning.
Better batteries, but are they good enough?
How realistic is Britain’s 2040 date, really? Two and a bit decades of development has the potential to deliver tremendous yields in innovation and EV battery technology. We understand from recent breakthroughs in chemistry technology, most notably from South Korea, that the lithium battery is due to deliver on its promise of petrol-rivalling energy density, finally matching 400-500km a charge endurance with the performance we know EVs already possess.
The recently launched Tesla Model 3 Long Range derivative has a range of 498 km and can accelerate from 0 to 100 kph in 5.1 seconds.
The issue is that none of these technologies are sufficiently stable for mass production. Building millions of small batteries to power the circuitry of our Smartphones is one thing, but building batteries to move a 2 000 kg four-wheeled appliance across energy-sapping topography, at speed, is a battery draining exercise of vastly more severe scale. Research on production-ready modelling project that next-generation lithium batteries won't be a reality until the early-to-mid 2020s, without a disruption in supply. But that 's without considering any change in the toxic issue that nobody championing Britain’s 2040 vision is willing to discuss: EV’s dirty secret.
An internal combustion engine requires a fixed-amount of energy to construct in the forging and forming of metals, and then it’s done. All its future environmental cost will be the fuel it consumes. With a battery powered EV, it’s not quite the same. Lithium batteries are tragically burdensome on the environment in their sourcing and production. Of all mining techniques, lithium mining is regarded as severe due to most deposits being found in deserts and the extraction technique requires huge amounts of water. To convert the mined material into a battery that can store energy to power your EV, requires an amount of energy, per battery pack, which is calculated as the equivalent of 700 hours of internal-combustion driving emissions.
If you manage to charge your EV solely from renewable energy sources, it all makes a bit more sense, offsetting some of the immense inputs required to produce the battery in the first place. In South Africa, unlike Europe, renewably-sourced electricity is almost an impossibility for bulk usage. Our energy policy appears to be advocating non-renewables, such as coal. If you are not plugging into a wind-, solar- or hydroelectric-powered recharging source, there’s absolutely no point in driving an EV.
Is South Africa too big for EVs?
South Africa's geographical size, EV charging infrastructure and current energy policies pose challenges for an electrically mobile future.
Unless a monumental reversal of South Africa's energy policy happens in the next decade, any attempt to set our local car market on a course for true zero emissions motoring by 2040 will be impossible. Beyond the issue of sourcing electricity from non-renewables, South Africa’s geography and infant infrastructure are key areas of concern. Charging stations are so sparse, that it’s currently impossible to drive an electric car between any of South Africa’s major cities.
Whereas Britain has managed to establish at least 4 500 public charging points, South Africa’s struggling to get from double to triple figures. If infrastructure doesn’t spread, it’s impossible to imagine how South Africans will attempt the trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town or Durban to Port Elizabeth in pure EV cars. The distances are simply too vast and range anxiety will always be too real. To me, this is the fundamental reason why Britain’s 2040 policy will never make sense for South Africa: we need internal combustion fuel onboard, for the inevitable emergency range that is a reality of travelling enormous distances in a country with middling charging infrastructure.
The BMW i3 proves that electric motoring can be fresh and exciting in terms of packaging and driving pleasure.
BMW’s i3 is, to my mind, the definitive South African EV experience. It's a better car than Nissan’s Leaf in every possible way because it was built to be battery powered, retains BMW’s fabled driving dynamics and its ownership appeal is greatly buoyed by the option of carrying emergency fuel onboard, in the case of the Range Extender (REX) derivative. I’d always, without hesitation, recommend an i3 to anyone who is remotely interested, but I’d also never recommend it as anything but a REX. Those few litres of unleaded and having the internal combustion engines in reserve sets the mind fantastically at ease.
Battery cars work in Northern Europe. The high saturation of charging infrastructure and close proximity of towns, all under the cover of a mild to cool climate – makes for ideal EV motoring. South Africa is different. Heat, punishing distances and electricity supply uncertainty all corrode faith in an EV future. A policy setting a date for banning the sale of internal combustion cars at any point in the medium term, will be sheer madness for South Africa.
Where does that leave us?
Electric vehicles are the future, certainly, but our issues are markedly different to those of Europe... the EVs that will ultimately succeed here should be different to the ones Britain hopes will vanquish the requirement for new petrol- or diesel-powered cars by 2040. British drivers might drive on the same side of the road as we do, but we spend a lot more time doing that than they do – and for a nation of drivers who aren’t unfamiliar with 1 000 km journeys when going on vacation, hybrids will do very nicely, thank you very much.
The future is never quite what we expect or predict it to be. In Back to the Future Part 2, dateline 2015, a future of flying cars was presented, but with paper fax communication instead of tablets and Smartphones. No internal-combustion vehicles on sale by 2040? Unless we find a miracle material that’s a lot easier and less harmful to mine than lithium, it's quite unlikely.