Joule in our crown

For a manufacturer to pitch up at the Geneva International Motor Show without a green car in the repertoire is about as prudent as wearing a mink coat to a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals luncheon.

So it wasn’t surprising that at the show, which opened this week, there were about 60 alternative-fuel vehicles—including a pre-production version of South Africa’s electric vehicle, Joule.

Developed by Cape Town-based Optimal Energy, the Joule is the brainchild of chief executive Kobus Meiring, formerly of Denel Aviation and the South African Large Telescope project.

What worries Meiring most is funding. The Industrial Development Corporation and the science and technology department’s Innovation Fund have invested close to R200-million, but to build a manufacturing plant and begin mass production by 2012, as planned, billions are needed. “We’re looking at private investors, but would prefer a large chunk of equity to come from government,” said Meiring.

Optimal Energy has signed two crucial memorandums of understanding: with German automotive full-service supplier Edag, to industrialise the Joule according to strict German standards; and with South Korea’s Energy Innovation Group, to investigate establishing a lithium battery plant in South Africa.

Optimal Energy said the new industrial policy of South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry provides for full-scale production of the Joule.
The firm has mandated a consortium, led by investment company International SPC and supported by PricewaterhouseCoopers, to help raise capital.

When the Joule was launched at the Paris Motor Show in 2008, low-volume production was scheduled to start at the end of 2010, but the deadline has been shifted several times. However, Meiring said that in the next two months he would announce the location of the manufacturing plant, probably in the Eastern Cape.

As old manufacturing sites pose ecological risks, it was decided to create a greenfield plant to produce 50 000 units a year—up to 80% of which would be for export.

Meiring is under no illusions about the uphill battle he faces. “All we want is a small piece of the global pie. By 2020 it’s estimated that demand will outstrip supply and smaller companies such as ours will have an opportunity to capture a small percentage of the market.”

The new pre-production version has been nipped and tucked and is now a five-seater. Designed by South African-born former Jaguar chief designer Keith Helfet, the Joule was tweaked by Italian design company Zagato and South Africa’s Hi-Tech Automotive.

After a seven-hour charge using a regular 230V wall socket, it will be good for about 300km. Safety is in accordance with European standards, with six airbags, ABS brakes and stability control.

It is estimated that by 2013, the Joule will cost about R350 000, including the lease price of the lithium-ion battery pack. It has a top speed of 135kph.

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