Evoking the green-eyed monster

I knew I shouldn’t have been excited. I knew I shouldn’t have allowed myself to brag about what I was going to do because nothing lives up to the hype anymore.

But the irrepressible, often idealistic child in me got the better of my normally cynical disposition and I’m ashamed to admit that I was really looking forward to driving a zero-emissions car capable of 0 to 100kph in 5s.

Predictably, I was disappointed, but not for obvious reasons.

Siemens South Africa had invited a group of journalists to the Kyalami Raceway to celebrate its 150 years in South Africa. To showcase the technology Siemens was capable of creating, the company decided to bring out the eRuf sports car, which is a Porsche 911 roadster that has been converted by tuning company Ruf into an electric sports car.
Siemens made the motor and drive system for the eRuf, which debuted at the Geneva International Motor Show last year.

The eRuf coming to South Africa—even for a day—is quite a treat as there’s little chance for local motoring media to drive electric vehicles (EV) or more precisely to drive a car that’s said to be on par with the Tesla roadster EV, which sells in North America and Europe, but will probably never be available in South Africa.

So when I arrived at Kyalami and was told by fellow scribes that there was a power outage the previous night and that I probably wasn’t going to drive the car, I thought they were joking because these were petrolheads who don’t get excited about EVs of any kind.

Unfortunately for me, they weren’t having me on.

A Siemens executive confirmed there had been a blackout at Kyalami for a few hours during the previous night while the car was plugged in (and charging) and no one knew that it needed to be replugged in for it to start charging again.

So we couldn’t drive the eRuf around the Kyalami track, which was hugely disappointing, but after it charged up a little during the press conference we would be able to drive it along a straight stretch of tar for about 1.5km—a minuscule consolation that in time would shrink even further.

Despite the presence of the eRuf, Siemens emphasised that it has no interest in manufacturing cars as it is more concerned with the infrastructure to support EVs, such as incorporating renewable energy sources like the wind and sun into an existing electricity grid, and charging technologies, which include charging stations that offer billing systems and a variety of charging requirements.

Siemens is involved in a number of pilot projects worldwide, which are aimed at exploring ways to make battery charging for EVs convenient and reliable.

It’s estimated that by 2015 there will be 250 000 EVs on Europe’s roads.

The company announced a €200-million investment in Southern Africa to expand its business on the continent. “Africa offers Siemens vast opportunities for growth. As a green infrastructure pioneer, we’re a natural partner for mastering the continent’s major challenges. Renewable energies, in particular, have a huge potential in Africa,” said Siemens global chief executive Peter Löscher.

After listening to rather lengthy speeches by two Siemens suits and three politicians, I could think of nothing better than elbowing my way through the queue of journalists lining up to drive the eRuf.

The (literally and figuratively) green sports car develops a not-too-shabby 270kW of power and 970Nm of torque, has a claimed top speed of 250kph and is said to be good for about 200km on a single charge. The irony of this last fact wasn’t lost on those of us hoping its hour-long charge would allow a few test drives.

As expected the left-hand drive eRuf is eerily quiet. The Siemens executive sitting next to me in the car explained that I wouldn’t be able to experience its normal acceleration as this was possible only when it’s fully charged. I optimistically pointed out that the battery indicator on the dashboard hinted at being three-quarters full.

“Ah yes, that gauge is a little bit broken,” he said.

Can I, at least, put my foot flat on the accelerator?

“Yes, you can, but don’t expect much.”

The eRuf made a deep, whirring whoosh as we gradually took off and when I braked at the end of the straight it made a faint, somewhat creepy howling noise, which I was told was the result of brake fluid moving at rapid speeds. It was strange to be driving at 100kph in a car as quiet as the eRuf if only because my ears have been trained to respond to those aural indications of speed such as a high-revving engine and when those signals aren’t available, it’s a little like being deprived of one of my senses.

Truthfully, the event was disappointing—a bit like flying down to Durban for a World Cup semifinal only to be rerouted back home in mid-air because Airports Company South Africa allegedly sold your landing slot to the highest-bidding VIP.

I can’t say much about how the eRuf felt or handled or what the drive was like because there was barely any drive to speak of. Unfortunately, a PR snafu such as this one played right into the hands of green-tech naysayers who always emphasise the limitations of green vehicles.

Yet there’s no denying that the eRuf is an accomplishment of note. The fact that the Siemens’ celebrations had attracted Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica and Tshwane mayor Gwen Ramokgopa is proof enough that this technology innovator is of great importance to the South African government, despite Siemens not having the foresight to prepare for the predictable Jo’burg blackout.

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