Electric Cars in South Africa

Damian Murphy explores the road ahead for electric cars in South Africa and on the continent.

It seems that electric cars are the way of the future when you consider carbon dioxide emissions are continually on the rise, the serious and undeniable threat posed by climate change and the dwindling fossil fuel reserves. With demand for fully electric vehicles increasing globally, we have to ask why there are only two models of 100% electric vehicles available to buy in South Africa. A hybrid shouldn't be confused with a fully electric engine as hybrid vehicles still use normal combustion engines to charge their electric motors to power themselves.

Currently, the only two fully electric cars for sale in South Africa are the BMW i3 and the Nissan LEAF; and while the BMW i8, Toyota Prius and Volvo XC 90 are impressive examples of hybrid technology, they just aren't electric cars. Overseas you have a much larger selection of fully electric cars to choose from with companies like Tesla, Hyundai, Chevrolet and Mitsubishi all producing their own models. Some European countries plan to completely eradicate fuel-powered cars within the next two to three decades. China has set itself very aggressive electric car targets to curb the massive amount of pollution ruining the air quality in parts of the country. So why is it that we're still so far behind, and why have so few manufacturers brought their fully electric models to African shores?

Part of the problem might lie in the fact that our electricity supply is somewhat unstable. In South Africa, Eskom has managed to steady the ship over the last few years, meaning load-shedding is much less of a problem. But, overall, uncertainty surrounding the parastatal still looms over our heads.

With demand for fully electric vehicles increasing globally, we have to ask why there are only two models of 100% electric vehicles available to buy in South Africa.

Another reason for the slow uptake is the fact that there are just not enough charging stations around South Africa. Cape Town and parts of Gauteng have charge stations available to electric car owners, and BMW and Nissan dealerships have their own charging stations to cater to their clients’ needs. Fortunately for owners of the i3 and LEAF, BMW and Nissan also have a charge station sharing agreement.

Furthermore, the fully electric car hasn’t taken off because of the price. The Nissan LEAF will set you back a little under R500 000, and considering the fact that it's not much more than an average city hatchback with average performance, the costs are high. The BMW i3 is slightly more sophisticated with a better finish but, at a cost of R613 000, it's still very expensive. Range is also an issue as electric cars cannot travel huge distances between charges and their batteries are ridiculously expensive to replace. Some need replacing every 50 000km.

Rapid advancements in electric and hybrid technology should soon mean that South Africans will have affordable access to improved electric automotive performance. However, it will still be a good few years before they become as readily available here as they are in the northern hemisphere.