A Renault ZOE electric car from the car-sharing company Zen Car connected to a charging point in Brussels, Belgium. Picture: Reuters
A Renault ZOE electric car from the car-sharing company Zen Car connected to a charging point in Brussels, Belgium. Picture: Reuters

Will South Africans in 2027 be sipping coffee and reading the news as they make their way to work in self-driving cars? Probably not.

Autonomous vehicles and electric cars have sprung from film and landed in reality, with the automotive industry developing more practical ways for these innovations to become part of daily life.

But every market has unique circumstances which must be considered. In South Africa these include poor road conditions, meaning that full-fledged autonomous vehicles are unlikely to be introduced here any time soon, according to Toyota South Africa CEO Andrew Kirby.

"We have a lot of cars in South Africa already at autonomous level one and two, where they can steer themselves, keep in a lane and accelerate and brake in an emergency situation. But when you get past that you need a lot of investment in infrastructure," Kirby said this week.

This includes real-time 3D mapping, road infrastructure like clear road markings that can communicate with vehicles, and vehicles able to communicate with each other.

"That type of infrastructure is not going to be available in South Africa for many years to come.

"The experience of full autonomy is not going to be practical in South Africa. Manufacturers all have the technology, the issue is that the infrastructure needs to be in place to utilise it."

To provide common terminology for autonomous vehicles, SAE International has developed six levels of automation, from zero to five.

At level five vehicles are controlled by an automated driving system that can manage all aspects related to driving, while driver involvement is required at lower levels.

The key driver for the development of autonomous vehicles is safety, with a KPMG report last year estimating that accidents could be reduced by 80% in 2040.

"Although we will not be able to experience the full autonomy experience, the safety technology that will come to cars is going to make our vehicles a lot safer in South Africa," Kirby said.

"There is a lot of unpredictable behaviour on South African roads and we need to design ourselves around that."

Another issue that creators of autonomous vehicles are grappling with is ethical, relating to how the system is programmed to react when an accident is imminent.

Matt Gennrich, general manager of communications at Volkswagen South Africa, said: "If you are in your car and a truck is veering towards you, on your right is a woman with a child and on your left an old man is driving, how you respond is your decision as a person. In an autonomous car, who will be responsible?"

Gennrich said these issues were likely to be ironed out and that self-driving cars would become regular a feature on roads. He agreed, however, that this would not materialise in South Africa.

Another innovation that is unlikely to take off in South Africa soon is electric cars, although they may become popular in 10 to 15 years, Gennrich said.

"In the next couple of years they will become more affordable and available. You can't go very far in them - with a range of between 60km and 120km - and they recharge overnight, but they will become more palatable as the technology improves."

Eskom spokesman Khulu Phasiwe said the power utility was working with industry players to ensure it was prepared for a boom in electric cars.

"We have investigated installing chargers in high-density areas like Sandton City and Clearwater Mall. We are not going to be caught by surprise," he said.

Kevin Murphy, a Schroders equity fund manager, said that while there was growth in electric cars globally, consumption of petrol and diesel was likely to fall only in the early 2030s.

While local car manufacturers will in time bring more innovative products to the local market, a more pressing issue is offering vehicles in South Africa with improved internal combustion engines, already being manufactured for export to Europe.

Currently, South Africa's refineries cannot produce clean fuel for these engines.

The Clean Fuels 2 programme should have been finalised by the government in July, but this has not happened.

Kirby said: "That puts us in a very difficult position. Over time our parent company that supplies us with the engines is not going to be able to continue to support old technology engines.

"This could mean we have less availability of drivetrains in our markets and certainly the options for consumers in South Africa will start to diminish over time."


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