More power to the Joule

In this frenetic world where time seems to have sped up and no one can afford to waste minutes, let alone hours, on something that isn’t going to benefit them, I was as annoyed as anyone that Optimal Energy had flown a select few journalists to Cape Town and not even given us the opportunity to drive or report on Africa’s first electric vehicle (EV).

We were told the event was an unveiling, but we weren’t informed about the three-week embargo until we got to the event and that was somewhat unfair. Still, I didn’t think it was enough to break the embargo.

I think we, as journalists, sometimes make the mistake of prizing self-importance above all else and we subsequently do anything to justify flouting the rules. There are undoubtedly instances when we need to go as far as breaking certain laws in the interest of informing the public, especially when the story in hand involves high-level corruption.
But, I didn’t think informing the public could ever be a mitigating circumstance for breaking the embargo that Optimal Energy had placed on information about the Joule (its passenger EV).

Some journalists believe that as a South African-funded initiative Optimal Energy should have given South African media first bite at the Joule pie and I don’t disagree with them entirely.

The reason I’m not as miffed as other journos is twofold: 1. I believe the Joule is the first decent EV that might have a real shot at transforming the way the world looks at EVs (I’ll elaborate in a moment) and 2. Optimal Energy needs not only funding, but also strategic global partners to make this initiative work. If it thinks—whether rightly or wrongly—that it had a better chance of achieving this with an international launch at the Paris Motor Show this week, then I wasn’t going to do anything to compromise their plans. I also believe that the Joule will be more successful overseas than in South Africa not only because international car markets are significantly larger but also because people have been exposed more to hybrids and EVs in Europe and the Americas, and are therefore more open to the idea of alternative fuel vehicles.

Although Optimal Energy is said to have received at least R50-million in funding from the government, there are also rumours that local investors are somewhat reluctant to plough money into the project and if that is the case, then international funding becomes far more crucial. Why the South African government has unveiled the automotive development programme, which helps foreign car manufacturers and not local ones such as Optimal Energy, is not something I fully comprehend.

To date, the following EVs are available in a select few countries: there’s the much-slated Reva in India (known as the G-Wiz in the United Kingdom), which Jeremy Clarkson proved was slower and less safe than a wooden table. Google “Clarkson” and “G-Wiz” to watch the amusing video which shows why the G-Wiz is awful, which as Optimal Energy chief executive Kobus Meiring puts it “does a disservice to other EVs”.

There’s the much-celebrated two-seater Tesla roadster, which is as fast as most supercars, but it costs $100 000 and there are no plans to bring it to South Africa.

The two-seater Aptera that looks like a small plane is still in testing and will—for now—only be available in California. Then there are the big guns such as the Chevrolet Volt, which is due to go into production by 2011. Tesla is also working on a passenger EV, the prototype of which will be unveiled in 2010. And then there’s our Joule, a six-seater MPV—built to European safety specifications—which could go on sale towards the end of 2010 when other manufacturers will only be unveiling prototypes of their passenger EVs.

The Joule is practical, has a decent enough range, an abundance of safety aids and never mind that it’s adding a few more years to earth’s lifespan, but it looks great and shows off how innovative South Africans can be. We’re no longer just that troubled tip on the African continent with non-stop political wrangling, world-leading crime and corruption statistics and an increasingly schizophrenic ruling party, but with the Joule, we could become leaders in the technological race. Really, who would have thought that possible in deepest, darkest Africa?

So I’m not sorry I didn’t break the embargo and I sincerely hope that Meiring and his team are able to secure the necessary alliances overseas that could see South Africans (and millions across the globe) whizzing around town with nothing more than a smug smile on their eco-friendly mugs and the sweet, barely audible humming of an electric engine under the bonnet of their Joules.

Optimal energy’s jewel
Initially I though it was a joke. Someone had mentioned that a bunch of South African engineers was working on the prototype of an electric vehicle (EV) and given that South Africa’s power utility—Eskom—is so inept that it’s created entirely new words to hide its idiocy (load-shedding), I thought I was meant to laugh.

As it turns out, it wasn’t a joke and Optimal Energy, the Cape Town-based company which revealed its passenger EV at the Paris Motor Show two weeks ago, is pretty sure that the Joule is going to work.

One of the first sentences out of Optimal Energy chief executive Kobus Meiring’s mouth at the local unveiling a month ago was aimed at allaying fears about the ongoing electricity crisis in South Africa.

Obviously the Joule, being an EV, would need to be charged for several hours every night and according to Meiring, Eskom has assured him that there is more than enough surplus energy to charge millions of EVs in South Africa from 11pm to 6am even when power supply is erratic during the day.

The Joule, which is powered by an electric motor, works off a battery pack of lithiumion batteries, similar to those found in cellphones and laptops and, depending on the battery configuration a customer chooses, the Joule can go anything from 200km to 400km on a charge. It doesn’t need fuel of any kind, but if you forget to charge it at night, you will be in the dwang because charging the batteries is the only way to get it mobile. It’s not a hybrid, so it doesn’t use fuel together with the battery pack—the battery pack is all that powers an EV.

“A car is bought based on emotion. This is why the design of the car had to be appealing,” said Meiring of the undeniably attractive six-seater MPV.

South African-born Keith Helfet, who has designed some iconic Jaguars in his time (the XJ-220 and the F-Type), was tasked with designing the Joule and although he admitted that he would have preferred designing a more sporty vehicle, he was nonetheless chuffed with the Joule’s overall aesthetics.

“We believe that it [the Joule] will be much cheaper to run than the petrol-driven car and will not discharge any chemicals into the atmosphere,” said Meiring.

But what about the emissions from burning coal for electricity? “Those emissions exist, but are nowhere near as harmful as the emissions from millions of petrol-driven cars,” said Meiring.

Rumour has it that the first Joule manufacturing plant will be in Gauteng and that it could go on sale towards the end of 2010 for about R200 000.

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