/ 15 June 2022

Quantum leap: Electric minibus taxis could soon be a SA reality

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A thing of the past? The first vehicle of its kind in the country will arrive by the end of this year and it will be rigorously tested under local conditions.

A consortium of industries and researchers at Stellenbosch University are taking a Quantum leap into electrifying South Africa’s minibus taxi sector

By the end of this year, the first electric minibus taxi will arrive in the country and take a sho’t left to the university, where it will be rigorously and extensively tested and then presented to the taxi industry, the government and commuters.

The public transport electrification project is the brainchild of GoMetro, MiX Telematics, HSW, ACDC Dynamics and the university’s faculty of engineering and the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies, which aim to accelerate the transition to cleaner and greener transport. 

They have announced their research partnership to investigate and advance the feasibility of an electric minibus taxi by testing “real life” production vehicles in South Africa next year. 

The aim is to “put the electrification of the minibus taxi sector firmly on the national agenda” through an educational roadshow in all provinces in 2023. 

“We basically want to put the vehicle in front of South Africans and challenge the perception right now that ‘it will never work’, ‘that it’s not viable’, and the more we show it off, the more viable it potentially becomes,” said Justin Coetzee, the chief executive of GoMetro, a global mobility management technology company. 

Record fuel prices

With the fuel price reaching historic highs, commuters are spending as much as 40% of their income on transport and are constantly battling increasing fares. The lower operating costs of an electric minibus taxi could reduce this, said Thinus Booysen, the research chair in the Internet of Things at Stellenbosch University, who is leading the team of testing experts. 

Electric vehicles [EVs] have much lower operating cost than combustion engines. We are bound to find out how much but our initial estimates are that it is less than half for the lifetime of the vehicle.”

The purpose of testing different models is to establish which vehicle will be best suited to the local transport industry, and what spectrum of operations are conducive to the range capabilities of the vehicles. 

Taxi drivers, owners intrigued

Taxi drivers and owners are “very interested and intrigued” by the idea, Coetzee said. The acceptance and practicality of the model will be extensively tested with them to “identify the use-cases and conditions where an electric taxi would make the most sense”.

At current fuel prices, it costs R3.50 a kilometre to run a diesel vehicle. 

“With the current electricity price, the same equivalent vehicle would operate at R1.20 per kilometre. So you’re talking about a 70% reduction in fuel costs,” he said. “The vehicle has much less maintenance required because it’s got very few moving parts.” 

Shelven Africa, the chairperson of the Stellenbosch Taxi Association, said: “We are very excited about it and want to see how we can benefit from the whole project. Hopefully it can save us money for fuel because that is our main expense. It’s a new thing for us and we’ll see if it’s going to fulfil our needs.” 

The South African National Taxi Council said it would “comment at the right time”. 

‘Silver bullet’ for decarbonisation

EVs are hailed as a “silver bullet” to globally decarbonise the fuel transport sector, which is responsible for about 23% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. The development of low-carbon transport in cities is part of the global agenda to delay climate change and relates to many of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the project team said. 

Although EV sales have increased substantially in the Global North and many vehicle manufacturers plan to stop production of combustion engines as early as 2030, in sub-Saharan Africa, the transition to EVs continues to be “painstakingly slow”. 

Booysen said that although the informal taxi sector needs to shift to EVs, little is known about their energy requirements. 

“Internal combustion engines can run until they are empty, and then they need to refill with petrol or diesel at one of the many filling stations. Range and charge times are therefore not a big concern. So the exact fuel efficiency does not matter that much.

“But, with EVs the fuel efficiency has a substantial bearing on how far the vehicle can go before it needs to recharge. This energy efficiency depends on driving style, weight of the vehicle and weight of the passengers, whether the vehicle is driving uphill, downhill on highway and intra-city roads. But then it also depends on some vehicle parameters such as the efficiency of the vehicle in converting battery energy into kinetic energy when accelerating and the efficiency of the vehicle in converting movement energy into battery energy when braking.

He said these factors need to be established for the South African minibus taxi scenario.

In sub-Saharan Africa, about 70% of the population depends on minibus taxis. 

“We want to be sure that the electric minibus taxis will still be able to serve the populace. If we import vehicles that don’t have sufficient range, don’t charge quickly enough or if they don’t make financial sense for the owners, then it’s not going to fly,” Booysen said.

Bumps on the road

Among the hurdles are the vehicle’s high upfront costs. Coetzee said a diesel minibus retails for about R500 000 to R600 000 compared with its electric counterpart, which goes for R1.2-million because of its expensive battery, shipping and high import duties. 

“It would be very difficult to sell them in the market at that price,” he said. 

The project team wants to have discussions with the vehicle sector and policymakers to encourage proactive talks with the government about the reduction of duties.

For Booysen, the solution is local production. “If we were to manufacture them locally, we’d probably be able to get it at the same cost. We’ve got a few production facilities in the country and if we fall behind and don’t start producing EVs locally … then we’re going to lose a lot of automotive production jobs.”

Another barrier is the lack of a track record, Coetzee said. “A taxi goes on the road for 10 years, 15 years, sometimes longer, so a new vehicle with no track record, what does it have by way of longevity and robustness? … That’s an unknown, even for the research team. That’s why we’re bringing in a few models so we can … put them right next to the vehicles we have today and see the quality and longevity through testing.” 

Charging infrastructure

There’s no infrastructure to charge EVs at taxi ranks.

Coetzee said: “The minibus taxi industry would essentially need an infrastructure of its own — its own charging points, its own charging network … which is a very costly undertaking. Not only do you need to build it, you need to ensure it stays where it is [because of theft and vandalism].

Booysen added: “We will probably have to also invest in battery storage infrastructure at the taxi ranks so that they can charge from solar power when it’s available, and fast charge the vehicles when they are stationary … That’s really where we need to aim for otherwise we will struggle to keep the grid up.”

Rural taxi drivers would probably use off-grid chargers that work off solar power with very big batteries. In urban areas, they will probably be grid-tied to support fast charging “so that they can still carry the number of people they do”.

Load-shedding is not a feasibility obstacle. “You only have load-shedding for two hours, maybe four hours a day if it’s bad, and for the rest of the time power is available,” Coetzee said. “So as long as the vehicle had charge for the next two hours, it could then charge when it was done.” 

Five-year transition

Booysen envisions that local production and affordable vehicle pricing could see the move to an electrified taxi fleet within five years. “In Chile, for example, most of their buses have transitioned to electric vehicles. Golden Arrow has two electric buses and it made so much financial sense for them that they’re planning to transition their whole fleet and install just enough solar power capacity to charge from solar power, then they don’t even have to pay for their electricity.” 

The challenge for South Africa is Eskom. “If you do with our current energy mix, your carbon emissions are slightly more than what would have been from a petrol or diesel vehicle. It’s crucial, it’s imperative that we use renewable energy to charge these vehicles otherwise there’s little environmental benefit,” said Booysen. “If we can supplement the Eskom supply with solar power so that our mix becomes greener, then that whole picture changes.” 

Coetzee said adopting electric minibus taxis would keep South Africa competitive in the global vehicle market, which is moving towards EVs. “It would build and generate skills in charge networks and in manufacturing batteries. The world is moving very rapidly to EVs and we’re kind of falling behind.”

The research project will help build a local EV economy with “enormous opportunities” for local job creation. “We’re working very closely with the government and the taxi industry to understand what type of jobs would be created and would be needed for such a thing to be viable,” he said.