Can we drive on electricity alone?
Much has been said and written about electric cars and they’re big overseas. We take a look at whether they can work in South Africa
Electric cars appear to be The Next Big Thing. As recently as 2005, the number of electric vehicles (EVs) was still measured in hundreds. However, according to the International Energy Agency, there were 1,26-million electric cars on the world’s roads by 2015 and around two million by the end of last year. A further one-million EVs will be sold this year.
Despite Donald Trump (who wouldn’t know climate change if it punched him on the nose), the Americans are embracing EVs like never before. EV sales in America rose 49 percent in the first quarter of 2017, versus a 38-percent increase in Europe.
In Norway, one in three new cars is an EV – meaning the country has the highest per capita EV ownership on the planet. The land of the trolls and the Netherlands, its equally green European counterpart, aim to eliminate fossil-fuel cars by 2025.
EVs are also selling faster than rice in China (well, almost). According to EV-volumes.com, some
351 000 EVs were sold in that country last year. That’s 85 percent up on 2015, making China by far the largest market for New Energy Vehicles, as they are called there.
So, how does South Africa compare to its global counterparts? Rather dismally, I’m afraid; only about 500 of the seven-million vehicles on our roads are EVs. There are numerous reasons for this situation. The first is cost – an EV is significantly more expensive than its fossil-fuel counterpart.
The second is availability of electricity; we’re still all paranoid about load shedding. Range is a third concern; we have what’s commonly referred to as “range anxiety”. A fourth reason is the charging time; we’re accustomed to pulling into a fuel station and having someone else fill our vehicles’ tanks in minutes.
Bearing all these factors in mind, I decided to set myself a challenge. I opted to drive for one week on electrical power alone. My steed of choice was the fully-electric, zero-emission BMW i3 with a Range Extender (REX).
This quirky little Beemer has both a 650 cc two-cylinder petrol engine with an output of 28 kW and an electric motor with an output of 125 kW, which means that it’s not a crisis if you do run out of electricity.
Incidentally, the car is produced in an extremely green fashion; it’s made in Leipzig, Germany, and it uses 70-percent less water, 50-percent less energy and 100-percent renewable electricity for production compared to a conventional BMW.
Speaking of going green, BMW South Africa is in the process of rolling out solar carport charging, but I used “dirty” electricity during my week – meaning I wasn’t exactly saving the planet.
So, how did it go? Quite well, actually – but it’s a whole new way of life. You need to think of an electric car like a mobile telephone – meaning you need to charge it daily. The actual driving experience is blissful; masses of torque are available immediately, meaning acceleration is nothing less than superb. It’s a spacious, very comfortable and ultra-stylish vehicle, too.
However, there’s no getting away from the range limitations. The i3 is meant to be able to travel
170 km on electric power alone, but I never achieved this. Accordingly, I had to charge it each day.
Every morning when I arrived at my office, some
15 km from home, I started charging the i3. This method of charging takes seven hours and 45 minutes (assuming you want a full charge from empty). I’m seldom in the office the entire day, meaning I couldn’t rely exclusively on this charging method.
It would be ideal to charge the i3 overnight, but I didn’t feel comfortable with running the cord out of my kitchen window to my parking bay (I worried that the cord could be damaged by other motorists in the apartment complex).
I live in Sandton and I searched for charging stations in my area (my i3 told me that there weren’t any close by). That’s strange, because I know there’s one at Melrose Arch. I popped in on a Sunday and left the i3 on charge for an hour and a half while I shopped. At the end of that charge, I had sufficient electrical power to drive 71 km.
Probably because I was so determined not to use petrol, I found myself eyeing the dashboard constantly. I did my level best to drive economically. However, all too often I was told that the electric range was insufficient (this happened every second day and I was only travelling in and around Johannesburg). Having said this, I always found a power socket in time … so I achieved my goal of driving for one week on electrical power alone.
Would I want the i3 as my regular car? Yes please; it would suit me just fine. Will more South Africans buy an EV? I doubt it. Goodness gracious, South Africans don’t even refuel their own cars! Expecting them to charge their cars each day is simply a bridge too far.