New on the block: A BMW electric-car charger on display at the International Car Show at Nasrec, Johannesburg, in 2013. Five years later there are fewer than 500 electric vehicles on SA’s roads. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS/FINANCIAL MAIL
New on the block: A BMW electric-car charger on display at the International Car Show at Nasrec, Johannesburg, in 2013. Five years later there are fewer than 500 electric vehicles on SA’s roads. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS/FINANCIAL MAIL

SA may have just 18 months to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to new car engine technology. This warning comes from Nico Vermeulen, director of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA.

Vermeulen says many global car companies are manufacturing engines with outdated or rapidly dating technology to supply SA.

"In 18 months’ time, many manufacturers will not have access to this older technology," says Vermeulen. "Then we have a problem."

Tim Abbott, BMW SA’s MD, says it is unlikely that the country will become a market for older-technology vehicles produced in places such as China and India.

"The chances are that over the medium term we will see a mix of vehicles on our roads," says Abbott. "The country may move slightly slower than the larger markets, but this will allow the developed world to bear the cost of developing emissions-free mobility, and in time EVs [electric vehicles] will reach a tipping point of price parity with traditional internal combustion vehicles, at which point their benefits will be better understood. With government assistance it is possible to do this quicker, but, in time, individual mobility that is connected and emissions-free [engines] is where we’re going."

Vermeulen’s warning comes as cities and countries around the world adopt stricter emissions policies and even consider banning the internal combustion engine. In July 2017, the UK secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs announced that the government’s new clean air plan would include a complete ban on petrol and diesel cars in the UK by 2040.

The plan was diluted slightly last week, possibly in the face of opposition from the automotive industry in the UK or also because the government realised the scale of replacing the UK’s 37-million cars.

Consumers and authorities in China will be wondering what is taking the rest of the world so long. Between January and April, 225,410 EVs were bought in China, an increase of 149%. The government seeks to see 2-million EVs on its roads by 2020. But it is the pace at which it is forcing change that is astonishing. In Shenzhen, a city in Guangdong province, the authorities replaced more than 16,000 public transport buses with electric buses in fewer than eight years. Today there are no buses with internal combustion engines.

And the city is not done there. On May 1, it advised that all new light-duty trucks will have to be electric.

From July 1 all ride-hailing taxis must be fully electric and by December 31 all taxis in the city must be EVs. By the same date all 20,000 light-duty diesel trucks will have to have been replaced by electric ones. The city will also install 5,200 EV charging points in addition to those already in operation.

The latter point is crucial because it is not just about replacing the vehicles, but providing the infrastructure.

In the past year, France installed the highest number of charging points at 11,987. Germany, the epicentre of the diesel scandals, was second with 7,937 and the UK was third with 2,833.

But what about here in SA? The number of public chargers installed in 2018 was minuscule, but there are fewer than 500 EVs on SA’s roads, something the industry obviously wants to change.

"The adoption of EVs in other countries has been supported by national, local and municipal governments in the form of exemptions for parking, congestion charging, and with monetary support for those who opt to buy an EV," says Abbott. "In SA, we have asked the government to consider temporarily reducing the high import tariffs on EVs [now at 25%, compared with 18% for a standard internal-combustion car engine] to allow us to reduce prices and stimulate the market."

Euro 6 was introduced in Europe in 2014, but even stricter targets are due in 2020 with car makers having to meet an average of 95g/km of CO² emissions.  

Any decision to reduce tariffs rests with SA’s International Trade Administration Commission but so far there has been no agreement.

While Europe, China and the US are promoting vehicles powered by alternative fuels, they also have stricter emissions regulations, with SA languishing far behind. The standard for fuel is at Euro 2. This standard was phased out in Europe after 2000, 18 years ago.

"This country is 20 years behind," says Vermeulen on the subject of fuels. He says we need Euro 5 or Euro 6 fuels urgently, but the introduction of the South African government’s Clean Fuels II strategy has been delayed multiple times.

Euro 6 was introduced in Europe in 2014, but even stricter targets are due in 2020 with car makers having to meet an average of 95g/km of CO² emissions.

The Volkswagen Group’s dieselgate scandal, which saw Audi global CEO Rupert Stadler arrested last week, could yet change all that though. It turned the spotlight from CO² emissions to nitrous oxide (NOx). Diesel vehicles emit lower CO² but higher NOx. Petrol vehicles emit lower NOx but higher CO².

In a further development, the industry saw significant alliances last week formed in the area of hydrogen, which just a few years ago was seen as too expensive.

Volkswagen/Audi and Hyundai have agreed to work together, and Toyota is also very far long with its hydrogen strategy.

Hydrogen does provide a strong opportunity for SA, with platinum required in the fuel cells. Conversely, a big move to EVs, which do not require any minerals from SA, would be less beneficial to the economy, but better for the environment than the internal-combustion engine models still in use.

Regardless of whether it is the engines, vehicles or infrastructure, SA needs to make decisions soon or risk isolating itself from a rapidly changing automotive world.

Please sign in or register to comment.