The first hint that this was no ordinary car was the complete lack of sound and vibration when it was switched on.
As the display on the dashboard lit up, a battery sign appeared where the image of a petrol pump would normally pop up – with a big “68 percent” in the middle of it.
This Nissan Leaf electric car is part of a generation of vehicles that aim to redefine the way we travel. Currently this and the BWM i3 are the only full electric vehicles offered for sale in South Africa.
Carel Snyman, senior manager for the cleaner mobility programme at the SA National Energy Development Institute (Sanedi), has been driving his Nissan Leaf electric car for almost a year and said he would never go back to driving a combustion car.
“It’s fantastic,” he gushed.
Sanedi, along with the UN Industrial Development Organisation and the Department of Trade and Industry, have launched the low-carbon transport project in South Africa to support the adoption of electric vehicles in the country.
Snyman explained the advantages of having an electric car.
“An engine, gearbox and clutch require high maintenance costs. None of that is found in an electric vehicle,” he said.
An electric car, which has a lithium ion battery to store energy, also doesn’t need oil, water or petrol.
It uses four times less energy to travel the same distance as a normal car and has zero emissions.
Although the Leaf costs about R150 000 more than the equivalent internal combustion car, Snyman said that thanks to energy savings and depending on driving distance, it would cost only five years to break even.
As he took his foot off the accelerator, an energy usage graph on the dashboard showed how the current flow was reversed as the motor of the free-wheeling car became a generator, pushing energy back into the battery.
“If you drive very carefully, you can increase your range by 20 to 25 percent,” he said.
Snyman pulled into a shaded parking area at the Industrial Development Corporation in Sandton.
In front of each of four parking bays were narrow charging units, about the same height as and similar looking to petrol pumps.
Snyman whipped out his charging cord, lifted up a flap under the badge on the bonnet of his car and plugged the cord into both the car and the electric charge point.
He then swiped a card that looked similar to a bank card on the machine, and the vehicle started charging.
This particular charging station was the first off-grid solar-powered public charging point with four stations that were locally developed. More of these are needed, however, given that the majority of South Africa’s electricity, being coal-generated, is not clean.
Winstone Jordaan, whose company GridCars won the contract to design and build the charging station, explained that the cars were charged using power from 26 6.6kW solar panels with a 30kWh back-up battery. It could charge three cars fully in a day.
“People who haven’t driven electric have the perception that you need infrastructure, but 95 percent of charges happen at home or at work, Jordaan said. Some offices in Joburg, mostly banks, have already erected charging points in their staff parking.
To charge the car fully would take between 10 and 12 hours, Snyman said, while a fast charger, such as the one at the Corlett Drive Nissan branch, took only 20 minutes to go from 20 to 80 percent charged.
Depending on power tariffs, a full charge would cost about R35 and allow you to drive a distance of between 120km and 150km. And that’s the other big disadvantage of electric vehicles – currently they just don’t have the range to travel long distances, although this is likely to change in the years ahead as battery technology improves.
Snyman said that ideally, electric car users should charge their cars during off-peak times or use solar power at home.
Although both Nissan and BMW have brought electric cars to South Africa, Snyman and Jordaan pointed out that the uptake of electric vehicles in the country wasn’t as high as it should be, partly due to driver ignorance, but also because of a lack of support from the government.
“The public and government either haven’t got the message of the benefits or don’t understand them,” said Snyman.
“These things are expensive; we need the authorities to buy in. The government is not making it easy, there’s no support to encourage the introduction of electric vehicles into South Africa.
“The perception is that it’s a rich man’s car and it would not benefit poor people. This is mainly due to the high current cost, but this will come down,” he said.
“We can create a local industry in South Africa to introduce these energy-efficient and zero-emission vehicles locally. We are not talking cars but utility vehicles and buses.”
Jordaan added that if the government got behind the electric vehicle industry by providing incentives, it would make a big difference.
He said the 25 percent duty tax on electric vehicles needed to be done away with, and people who bought such a vehicle should be eligible for a tax rebate.
Only about 350 electric vehicles are currently in use in South Africa, although Jordaan predicted that this was likely to rise in the next 10 years.
Snyman said that despite the benefits of electric vehicles, the public still needed to change the overall way they thought about mobility.
“You must right-size your ride. If you consider what you’re buying, you’re still buying more than you need. You don’t need to have that big car, that big battery, that luxury. You may be able to afford the car, but you won’t be able to afford the impacts of it.”
The national Department of Transport had not responded to The Star’s questions at the time of publication.