Picture: 123RF/romanzaiets
Picture: 123RF/romanzaiets

The automotive sector is witnessing its most profound and seismic change in more than a century. In the next few years we will see the decline of internal combustion engines (ICEs), the dominance of electric vehicles (EVs) and the rise, to some extent, of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

In SA it may seem fanciful to speculate on the viability of EVs when we’re enduring our 15th year of electricity supply woes. But the fact remains that SA will eventually achieve a level of energy security, and energy supply won’t present any significant obstacle to our automotive transition.

The recent R131bn deal on concessionary finance for the move away from coal — and our dilapidated fleet of power-stations fired by the fossil fuel — is a significant step towards that goal.

Other factors ensure SA won’t miss the wave of innovation: for one, action on climate change will drive global market forces, including legislation on imports.

Ford SA is a major original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and exporter — we build a Ford Ranger every two minutes, around the clock, 60% of which are shipped to more than 100 markets, and those exports are governed by the legislation in those markets.

A UK ban on ICE-powered cars is expected to go into effect by 2030 and OEMs exporting to that market — Ford included — will have to comply. As export markets tighten restrictions on ICEs and move towards outlawing them completely, so exporters will have to tailor their products accordingly.

OEMs that simply wait to be dragged along by market forces will be left behind, and every major automotive OEM is now setting timelines for that transition. 

Ford’s commitment to, and investment in, the move away from ICEs goes beyond that. We are investing $29bn in EVs between now and 2025. Bill Ford, Ford’s chair and great-grandson of Henry Ford, is steering the company firmly on that route.

In the US, Ford is investing $11.4bn in BlueOval City, the biggest, most advanced and efficient production facility in its 118-year history. This will enable the company to supply zero-emission vehicles to Americans at scale, including the F-150 Lightning, the electric version of the F-series, America’s best-selling truck for the last 40 years, as well as the Mustang Mach-E and the E-Transit.

Electrifying three of the company’s most popular models is a bold declaration of intent. It’s being rewarded by soaring demand: the F-150 Lighting is the most in-demand EV truck and the first choice among first-time EV buyers. 

The list of other OEMs planning to phase out ICEs is formidable: GM plans three all-new EVs in 2022; Mercedes-Benz will launch 10 new EVs through its EQ brand in 2023; Nissan will have eight EVs in 2023 and Mazda at least two plug-in hybrids. In 2024, Land Rover and Volvo will have their first all-electric vehicles.

By 2025, Audi plans to have 30 electrified vehicles, and BMW anticipates that up to 25% of its global sales will be hybrid EVs and EVs. Jaguar plans an all-electric fleet by 2025 and Jaguar Land Rover will begin testing a hydrogen fuel-cell prototype.

But what of SA? Is it fanciful to imagine EVs dominating our roads? The evidence suggests not: advances in battery technology are consigning range anxiety to the past. There are already recharging stations every 20km on the N1 between Joburg and Cape Town.

Could we see taxi ranks with charging-stations? Certainly, and perhaps sooner than we think. Most minibus-taxis have short, urban routes that would allow quick charges at ranks while passengers disembark and embark.

The ascendancy of EVs might be uneven but it’s inevitable: it’s why the all-new Ford Ranger unveiled in November will have an engine compartment configured to be retrofitted as a hybrid EV or EV.

But what of autonomous vehicles? A number of features standard in high-spec vehicles already deliver a level of autonomy: adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping, trailer-sway control and semi-automatic parallel parking assistance all have elements of autonomy.

So, this is an exciting time for many reasons, not least of all because the ultimate benefit is to the driver. This becomes clear when we realise that the vehicle of the future will no longer be a chassis propelled by a series of controlled explosions of fossil fuel. Instead, each will be a platform for communicating data to the OEM and service provider.

This is a disruptive, daunting time for the auto sector: some of the jobs that will be needed in the EV and AV era may not exist yet. But rather than being dazzled by the science, we must remember that what’s under the bonnet of the vehicle is ultimately less critical than building a lifelong bond with the driver.

• Hill is president of Ford Africa.

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