Exports may spark EV demand in SA
With SA's car manufacturing geared towards export markets such as the US and Europe, the country may become a production hub for electric vehicles in the short to medium term, which could fast-track it into a future championed by SA-born entrepreneur Elon Musk.
With diesel engines still struggling from the fallout over emissions cheating led by Volkswagen, and the rise of electric vehicles because of Musk's Tesla, European manufacturers such as BMW have had to speed up plans for an electric future.
Rising global demand for electric vehicles may see the local subsidiaries of these European manufacturers bidding for future contracts for their assembly.
SA doesn't produce any electric vehicles at this stage. That said, it is possible that local plants could be repurposed in a relatively short time to produce these vehicles of the future for export.
Quizzed on how fast they would be able to repurpose their production lines, Mercedes-Benz SA said that information was "confidential".
Mercedes-Benz SA forecasts that battery-electric models will account for 15%-25% of total global unit sales by 2025.
"We expect local demand to follow the global trend, depending on customer preferences and the development of the public infrastructure," said Selvin Govender, the marketing director of the Pretoria-based manufacturer.
Toyota SA said it had done a feasibility study.
"There are plans to potentially produce alternative powertrain derivatives as part of a model range in future."
Three years ago, Mercedes-Benz SA became the first carmaker on the continent to produce hybrid vehicles.
"Our plant in East London builds the C-Class hybrid. With the introduction of the C-Class facelift in 2018, the same plant will manufacture two hybrid models for both local and international markets," said Govender.
Mercedes-Benz SA will introduce series production electric vehicles that will be fully imported next year.
Electric vehicles have substantially fewer moving parts - Tesla reportedly says its drivetrain has about 17 moving parts, compared to the close to 200 in a conventional internal combustion system.
Possible future bids to assemble electric vehicles by the local industry could help trigger rising demand locally. BMW's Rosslyn plant in Pretoria is responsible for global production of the its X3 model and exports some 87% of all its cars to Europe.
Late last year, Musk tweeted that he planned to introduce his Tesla vehicle to the South African market by the end of this year.
Africa "can't afford not to adopt electric vehicles", said Winstone Jordaan, managing director of GridCars, specialists in charging stations for these futuristic vehicles.
Jordaan believes that within the next two years, South Africans should see a marked increase in electric cars.
"This will happen within two years, as the major car manufacturers all release EVs [electric vehicles]."
Given the current price of electricity in SA, the approximate cost of running an electric vehicle is a quarter of that for the petrol vehicle equivalent.
The electronic National Administration Traffic Information System (eNaTIS) shows that SA has 12,462,980 registered vehicles, with just under 2,000 hybrid and about 400 fully electric vehicles sold in SA over the past five years.
Globally, electric vehicle sales are still a small percentage of overall sales, but they are growing.
BMW SA highlights that globally, EVs' share in total market registrations in 2018 was 2.2%, 1.7% in the US and 2.4% in the EU.
Last year, Toyota SA said a total of 201 electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles had been sold locally, which represents only 0.04% of the vehicle market. Of the 201, only 66 vehicles were pure electric.
Norway has the world's biggest electric car market, accounting for 30% of the total market, with hybrids accounting for 19%.
Jordaan admits that "EV uptake in SA has been slower than expected", but is adamant that "as the international car manufacturers stop producing fossil-fuel vehicles, we will have no choice but to step up this uptake".
Eskom says the key challenge of large- scale adoption will be the potential increase in peak demand for power.
Eskom identified the high import tariff on the cars, sitting at 25%, as a significant barrier to uptake.
Investment in large-scale charging infra-structure without addressing consumer cost barriers may lead to underutilised infra-structure, which, considering the rate of technology development, may be obsolete by the time SA has a notable uptake of electric engines.
By the end of next month, GridCars expects to add charging stations along the N1, N2 and N3.
BMW SA, which has sold more than 600 i3 and i8 models since 2015, has 57 charging stations and shares six with Nissan.