It comes as no surprise that the electric-car era has swept in. Almost every car manufacturer has joined the rat race to produce zero emission cars that are able to travel great distances on a single charge, while still remaining environmentally friendly. It’s the future of mobility. But, will the costs of developing electric cars hinder its growth? Thegandra Naidoo explains…Optimal Energy’s electric Joule was a great concept. It became a household name in South Africa when the concept was first shown at international motor shows a few years back. But, in 2011, Optimal Energy’s dream of producing a commercially-driven electric car dwindled and much of its brand loyalty went up in smoke. As it turned out, genuine investor interest in the Joule was completely absent. The only funding that it did receive was a ‘measly’ R300m of taxpayer’s money from government. Nobody thought the project would be sustainable or profitable, or create value for customers.Here’s the disappointment – the Joule lost its spark, it ran out of funds, and 60 employees lost their jobs. It’s even more disappointing when you consider that nearly 10,000 jobs would have been created downstream, had the Joule gone into production. The final nail in the coffin was the termination of government investment, which meant that effectively a lot of taxpayers’ money was flushed down the drain.
Thankfully, not all has been lost. While the Joule was a wonderful concept that cost millions of Rands to produce, MetAir has developed two electric vehicles on less than R600 000 of investment. The Met-Elec-R60 car’s budget target was R60 000, and it had to be built in just four months. That included the cost of purchasing the base model car as well. How’s that for cost effectiveness?
The concept was simple: purchase a used car and convert it from a petrol engine power train into an electric-driven car. The vehicle also had to be able to travel for a minimum distance of 50km without recharging. Pinetown-based Smiths Plastics was commissioned to handle all the body work designs while First National Batteries, a subsidiary of MetAir, supplied the batteries for the vehicle.
The exercise, of course, was used to demonstrate how VRLA lead-acid batteries could power an electric vehicle versus the favoured lithium-ion batteries. More impressively, the lead-acid batteries could be charged via a normal wall plug using a special charging device that was developed by First National Battery.
Smith Plastics purchased a 1998 Ford Fiesta at a cost of R20 000. However, the vehicle wasn’t in roadworthy condition, and needed to be refurbished so that it could be properly registered. The vehicle then underwent a weight shedding exercise, with the petrol engine, cooling system, air conditioner, exhaust, fuel tank and rear seats being removed to accommodate the electrical components and batteries.
Special mounts had to be made for the rear part of the vehicle where the batteries were housed. Using CAD designs, Smiths Plastics were able to develop a flywheel boss and motor adapter plate. A specialised electric motor, controller and ancillaries – from a forklift – were then fitted to the Fiesta at a cost of R33 000. The batteries cost R16 000 to purchase (at retail price).
In total, the vehicle was built for less than R70 000 – which was slightly over the R60 000 budget, but it was worth the effort because the Met-Elec-R60 is fully functional and fully roadworthied. From theoretical calculations, it should be able to travel at a maximum speed of 75kph and has a range of 41.5 km before the batteries need to be recharged. That’s exemplary when you consider that a person who travels at least 40 km to-and-from work, in a petrol engine vehicle, which consumes 8-litres per 100km as combined fuel cycle, will use around 3.8-litres of fuel per day.
At R12.97 per litre of 93 Unleaded fuel in Gauteng (April 2013), this person would spend R50 per day. In economic terms, the Met-Elec-R60 will cost around R6.00 to drive over 40km – about 12% of the cost of fuel used in an average petrol-engine vehicle! (Dependent on the driving style, terrain and ambient temperature. Uphill or high speed driving depletes the batteries quicker and would hence result in a higher cost per km)
The Met-Elec-R60 demonstrates convincingly that a locally built 100% electric vehicle is an economically viable and practical solution to the growing demand for low emission alternative means of transport. Smith Plastics is currently developing the Met-Elec-R60 prototype further to determine whether it can save more weight, and also provide a greater driving range. There is also the possibility of simultaneously charging batteries by solar power panels which increase the driving range.
The second MetAir electric car – dubbed the Met-Elec-R100 – was built from scratch by Supreme Springs in Gauteng. It is a more advanced electric car, which can travel for up to 120km before it needs to be recharged, and with a small petrol driven industrial motor it is also a range extended vehicle. As soon as we drive the Met-Elec-R100, we will provide a full review.
However, with all said and done, is it worth the money? In total, they spent R570 000 on the Met-Elec-R60 and Met-Elec-R100. As a once-off figure, it doesn’t sound very enticing; however these technologies could be adapted and scaled up for volume production and to include public transport vehicles, which would significantly lower the cost price per unit.
The Met-Elec-R60 and R100 story underlines the cold truth that you don’t need to spend R300m to develop a concept for an electric car. The costs of electric cars might startle potential investors now, but companies like MetAir aims to use the met-Elec-R60 model to further develop electric cars to showcase their ability and technology.
So, back to my original question: Will the costs of developing electric cars hinder its growth? I’ll let you decide…
Thegandra Naidoo is a motoring journalist. He has a decade’s experience in the automotive industry and is best known for his technical knowledge of cars. He has worked on various local television productions and co-presented a motoring feature on Kaya FM a few years back. He currently holds the position as Features & Online Editor for Automotive Business Review. He is currently completing a mid-career Honours in Journalism and Media Studies degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. Thegandra is a FULL member of the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists.