The Jaguar I-Pace being recharged at the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth. Picture: Calvin Fisher
The Jaguar I-Pace being recharged at the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth. Picture: Calvin Fisher

Road trips are about the journey, not the destination. My experience driving an electric vehicle (EV) along SA’s Garden Route was an exhilarating taste of a new way to drive.

But the journey was peppered with a giant dose of reality: SA is simply not ready to embrace electric vehicles for long journeys.

I was one of the drivers of Jaguar’s I-Pace last week, as a participant of a first for the continent: an electric vehicle road trip that took place over nine days from Pretoria to Cape Town, covering some 2,000km.

The company behind the initiative, Generation.e, has previously held similar events in Europe and the Middle East. Its first road trip in SA took place during Transport Month, and was managed in partnership with the transport department.

The three key EV players in the automotive industry in SA — Nissan, BMW and Jaguar — all participated. Nissan no longer sells its five-door electric hatchback, the Leaf, locally. For the event, it imported two vehicles from Japan. They joined three BMW i3s and two Jaguar I-Paces on the journey. The BMW i3 models were the REX (Range Extender) variants, which have a small petrol engine, so just the I-Pace and Leaf count as all-electric vehicles.

As a guest of Jaguar, I was invited to drive the I-Pace during the second leg of the road trip. The first leg was from Pretoria to Port Elizabeth, via Bloemfontein, the Gariep Dam and Graaff-Reinet. The second leg left PE, with stops in Knysna and Worcester, finishing in Cape Town.

Having previously driven three of the EVs sold in SA, and with some writing on the subject for FM behind me, the opportunity to be part of EV history in SA was thrilling.

The 800km linking PE and CT can be driven in a day, but for the purpose of our journey, it included charging stops and activities along the way. We covered it in three days.

Getting behind the wheel of the I-Pace a good seven months after first driving it at the Joburg launch meant I had to readjust to its regenerative braking system.

I had to remember to gently remove my foot off the accelerator as driving an EV is more about "one-pedal driving" — press to go, lift off to stop. The car recharges as soon as you start slowing down without having to hit the brakes, which also means brake pads last longer on an EV.

Driving an EV is such a thrill, but having so much power at your disposal could be dangerous without the knowledge and experience of how to control it. And regenerative braking will ultimately change the way people drive. This means an educational drive will be required to prepare users for mass adoption.

While in PE, we visited the Nelson Mandela University, home to the uYilo e-Mobility Programme, an initiative of the Technology Innovation Agency to facilitate electric mobility in SA.

Its initiatives include lobbying the government to reduce the 25% import duties on EVs, skills development, industry engagement, pilot projects and enterprise development. The university is also the home of the "largest" EV charging facility in SA with five chargers.

Passengers in our convoy had a chance to drive and rotate between the three models available, giving everyone a feel for the models. For everyone involved, the experience was eye-opening.

But everything didn’t quite go to plan. Things took a turn once we reached Knysna. At some point during the night and early morning while cars were being charged, technical issues caused by the third-party chargers — supplied by the official sponsor, ACDC Dynamics — forced some vehicles to stay back. In preparation for the trip, ACDC Dynamics rolled out four permanent AC chargers with two temporary ones travelling along the route.

The two I-Paces on the trip did not accept charge from the ACDC Dynamics’ chargers, though they worked fine on Jaguar’s own Powerway (rolled out by GridCars around the country). We left Knysna two I-Paces down, but had a replacement delivered that afternoon. The two vehicles are undergoing diagnostic tests by Jaguar SA.

One I-Pace made it to Cape Town by 9.30 that night, but the last remaining vehicle in the convoy got in close to 2am the next day.

Key lessons

A few things made me realise that SA is not quite ready for an EV road trip. Seven vehicles used one charging station at a time at most locations; the cars with a smaller range had to take a different route with additional stops to recharge; temporary chargers weren’t a solution to insufficient permanent infrastructure; and chargers experienced compatibility issues. Days felt longer as vehicles reached their destination well into the night.

The Leaf has a claimed 250km range; the i3 REX has a combined 240km electric and 120km petrol range; and the I-Pace offers 470km, but realistically we were able to get 380km because the cars weren’t always fully charged when we got in.

I was fortunate to be in the I-Pace and didn’t suffer "range anxiety". I could enjoy the airconditioning, charge my phone from it without feeling guilty, and not stick to Eco mode.

But SA has a long journey ahead, and the obvious next step would be to incentivise consumers and industry to go green. That may begin the process to give SA better infrastructure to ultimately speed up the adoption of EVs.