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

If anyone is in any doubt about the likely future of the global motor industry, those doubts will have been laid to rest in Munich this week. What used to be the world’s biggest motor show, in Frankfurt, relocated to the Bavarian capital, a shadow of its former self. And it had a central message: electric, electric, electric.

Cars were no longer the centrepiece. Instead, organisers of Germany’s International Motor Show, which started in Berlin in 1897 but was held every two years in Frankfurt from 1951 to 2019, declared that the theme should be “climate-neutral mobility”. Exhibitors included bicycle and scooter manufacturers, as well as transport providers, all anxious to take up Munich’s offer to throw open its roads and public spaces to people wanting to experience sustainable transport.

With many major motor companies staying away – Toyota, Ford, General Motors, Fiat, Peugeot, Nissan and Citroën were among those notable by their absence from what used to be an obligatory event – it was left primarily to German motor companies to speak on behalf of the traditional motor industry.

SA was included in their vision. Mercedes-Benz and BMW declared their SA manufacturing subsidiaries to be important elements in the quest for clean sustainability. Their global production heads said the production “flexibility” of SA assembly plants would allow them to meet the accelerating shift from traditional internal combustion engines (ICE) powered by petrol and diesel, towards all-electric power.

Mercedes-Benz SA (MBSA) is further down that road, after completing a R10bn investment in its East London plant this year, allowing C-Class car production to switch seamlessly between ICE and hybrid models. The latter, a stepping stone towards all-electric cars, are driven by dual petrol and electric motors.

In principle, the plant can produce 100% of either ICE or hybrid. In reality, it will churn out a mixture, depending on customer demand. Like BMW SA, MBSA exports more than 90% of its cars. In both cases, many major markets have announced plans to ban ICE vehicles from 2030, then hybrids from 2035.

It remains to be seen when SA will follow suit. Local consumers have generally shied away from electric vehicles so far and, though the government has woken up to the market shift, it has offered no timetable for transition.

Most car lifecycles are seven years, so MBSA will have one more model, probably in about 2028, before the overseas bans kick in. Group production head Jörg Burzer says Mercedes-Benz plants around the world will stop making ICE cars in 2030. For now, it makes sense to be able to build anything.

BMW SA still has to make the hybrid leap. The current SA-made X3 SUV, launched in 2018, is purely ICE. However, group production head Milan Nedeljkovic says the next model, due in about 2025, is likely to include electric options. The company is also looking for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of its assembly plant in Rosslyn, Tshwane.  Much of the plant’s power needs are already met by biogas, created from cattle waste.

Nedeljkovic says BMW worldwide has already reduced its manufacturing carbon footprint by over 70% since 2006 and plans to reduce current levels by another 80% by 2030. That will cut carbon generation to below 10% of pre-2006 levels. “Sustainability is the core focus of the whole industry,” he says. BMW’s mantra is “rethink, reduce, reuse and recycle”.

The third member of the German premium-car triumvirate, Audi, imports vehicles into SA. It recently announced plans to introduce the e-tron range of all-electric cars to SA early in 2022. The group says new ranges launched globally from 2026 will be electric. However, local MD Sascha Sauer says customers will still be able to buy ICE versions of current ranges until 2033, when ICE production will cease.

He recognises that many SA consumers doubt Eskom’s capacity to deliver the power needed to recharge electric cars. It is up to motor companies to reassure them and find solutions. Audi, he says, will offer e-tron customers home visits and advice on potential power upgrades, including the installation of solar power.

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