The electric vehicle revolution

Electric vehicles could potentially transform society.

Rising petrol prices are making life difficult for many South Africans, with the poor suffering the most, as always.

When petrol goes up, so does everything else: food, clothing, medicines, you name it. Yet, technology has a perfect solution for that will completely eliminate our reliance on petrol.

Electric vehicles, or EVs, have been around for some time now, but only recently have they become mainstream, thanks to EV manufacturer Tesla, founded by South Africa-born Elon Musk. Since its inception, Tesla has not only made giant strides in EV technology and lowered production prices significantly, it has also made EVs desirable.

The Tesla Model S, for example, is an exceptionally beautiful and luxurious car, comparable with most luxury German models. But the Model S is not just a good looker; with the power to accelerate from 0 to 100km/* in just 2.5 seconds, it is a beast. The Model S is also fitted with some of the most cutting-edge technology ever built into a car, with some reviewers calling it the “best in-car tech ever”.

There are no buttons and knobs on the dashboard. These have been replaced by a massive 43cm touch screen that controls nearly every aspect of the vehicle. The autopilot mode gives the car self-driving capabilities, while the auto-raising suspension and retractable door handles increase efficiency.

The advanced parking sensors can tell you exactly how far away the object behind you is. And if that is not impressive enough, pressing a button on the key will make the car pull itself out of its parking spot and come to you. But the real miracle of the Model S lies under the bonnet.

Its super-car performance comes from not one but two three-phase induction motors, which provide independent traction to the front and rear wheels. In other words, the front and rear axles each have their own engine.

This is largely possible because the watermelon-sized engines are much smaller and lighter than traditional, internal combustion engines.

The twin engines are powered by more than 5000 lithium ion batteries, similar to those used in cellphones and laptops, except that they can carry the same charge as 7000 cellphones.

This gives the car enough power to drive for up to 560km on a full charge. To fully charge the vehicle takes about nine hours when the car is connected to a 240-volt power source. This means that a person doing a daily 20km commute to work will only need to charge the car once every two weeks.

Tesla claims that their batteries have the highest energy density in the market, with the lowest cost per kilowatt, which basically means that the batteries are cheaper to make, and can store more power, than any other battery.

This gives the car its incredibly long driving range before the need to recharge. What about the running costs? In short, the Model S is cheaper to run than an equivalent petrol- powered car. Consider this: The Tesla Model S is rated at about 20 kilowatt hours per 100km, which translates to around R17 per 100km at an electricity rate of 86c per kilowatt hour.

After the October 2018 fuel price hike, a Toyota Corolla would cost R104.21 to travel the same distance. This is a huge saving.

EV technology is still in its infancy, and with more research and development, their efficiency will definitely increase, while production prices will decrease. Added to this, solar power technology is making huge strides, and in time an average-sized house might be able to generate its own electricity by coating its roof with cheap, efficient solar cells. In this case, running a family car would cost almost nothing.

The one major drawback of electric cars is that they are currently very expensive, with an entry-level Model S priced at nearly R1milliion. At that price, it is totally out of reach for most South Africans. But there are ways around this. The US government provides a $7500 (R106500) subsidy on EVs, while Norway goes even further: not only do they waive the acquisition tax, which generally amounts to around $11000, as well as the 25% VAT on electric cars, but EVs also receive other perks such as exemption from road tolls and ferries.

The results are evident: the US and Norway are two of the world’s leaders in EV adoption, with Germany, China, Iceland, Japan and the UK. The terrible irony is that EVs are virtually non-existent in the countries that need them the most, even though very few technologies can rival them in their potential to transform societies.

Cheaper transportation means lower prices, extra disposable income and a healthier economy. Couple EVs with emerging solar technologies, and we could soon have vehicles that cost next to nothing to run thanks to an unlimited supply of clean energy from the sun.

South Africa could easily become Africa’s leader in EV adoption, and the benefits could very quickly filter down to all South Africans, especially the poor. The question is, what is holding us back?

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