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May 28, 2010

GridCars' electric vehicle project hopes for transport revolution

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Electric vehicles are not new to South Africa.

Carel Snyman, who headed up power utility Eskom’s electric vehicle programme for many years, says his team developed a prototype electric vehicle which was exhibited in France. The Kruger Park also made use of several electric-game driving vehicles, to name but a few examples.

Ironically, the reason the now short-on-juice Eskom started the programme, was that it wanted to stimulate electricity demand, especially during off-peak periods when the electricity tap was still open, but nobody used it.

Eskom terminated its electric vehicle project in 2002, as the oil price tanked to $10 a barrel, and the hype grew around hydrogen as the fuel of the future.

However, now it seems the plug, charge and drive electric car, once upon a time insinuated to have been killed by the oil companies, have won the battle as the technology to take over the immediate crown from the internal combustion engine, with several major car manufacturers pushing their mass-produced electric vehicles onto the market, starting from this year.

Again, ironically enough, the fickle oil-price was the midwife for this revolution, as it hurtled towards $200 a barrel in 2008. (Talk is rife of the black stuff again reaching this level around 2012.)

So, where does this leave South Africa?

Well, there is the Joule electric vehicle, being developed by Cape Town based Optimal Energy, and the carefully worded promises from existing car manufacturers that electric vehicles will start arriving in the country when the market is ready.

But there is also other ways to tap into the market, says Snyman.

Snyman and business partner, technology evangelist and Advanced Energy Foundation CEO Winstone Jordaan, are working to get a concept called GridCars off the ground.

With a rather cavalier disregard for styling norms and the pride and ego-extension often associated with vehicle ownership, Snyman and Jordaan want commuters to buy the use of a three-wheel electric car like they would pay for a cellphone contract: they pay only for what they use.

“If you use the car only every now and then, you pay more per kilometre, and if you use the car a lot, you pay less per kilometre,” adds Jordaan.

In practice it will mean that a business director, for example, will drive her own car to the Pretoria Gautrain station, travel by train to Sandton, where she will then pick up a small electric vehicle from a pool of similar vehicles and use it to reach all of her appointments.

She does not even have to return the vehicle to Sandton, but drive it onwards to, say, another vehicle pool in Rosebank, and leave it there to get on the Gautrain rapid-link again, back to Pretoria.

The car will not require a key, but will make use of a sophisticated identification system which will log her fingerprint, and record the mileage she accumulates, charging her accordingly.

Typically, she will buy a contract for the amount of kilometres she will log on a GridCar every month, at around R2 000 to R3 000 a month.

“The car is a three-wheeler,” says Snyman. “It is basically a one-plus-one seater, with room for a little bit of luggage.”

The design for the vehicle has already been completed by an university abroad.

Jordaan and Snyman remain mum on the identity of this tertiary institution.

“We developed the business concept,” notes Jordaan. “We looked at 60 vehicles, and finally chose this particular one – obviously we want to make a few changes.”

The vehicle the Snyman/Jordaan team is considering will weigh between 300 kg and 340 kg, battery included, and will have a top speed of 80 km/h. It will not use a steering wheel, but a ‘joystick’, also called drive-by-wire.

“We will conduct crash tests, and we will consider including airbags. We still have to homologate the vehicle. The South African Bureau of Standards currently classifies it as a motorcycle,” says Jordaan.

Homologate refers to the process of ensuring a vehicle adheres to a country’s  regulatory standards.

The aim is also for the car to be of modular design – a nice word for a Lego-type design where ‘blocks’ can be added and removed while the basic concept remains the same – which will allow for the implementation of new technology as and when it becomes available.

Lithium-ion is the flavour of the month in terms of batteries, for example, but as computers and cellphones and other bits of technology keep on reminding us, the future is not set in stone.

The car being electric means that it saves on emissions, and running costs for GridCars.

Optimal Energy intends for the Joule to be serviced only every 40 000 km, for example, as it has so much less moving parts than an internal combustion engine, which requires a peek under the hood every 15 000 km.

“But, always remember, this is about more than the car,” emphasises Snyman. “It is a completely new transport system we want to introduce.”

Jordaan says the aim is to have two prototype cars running around in South Africa by the end of the year. This will cost around R12-million to build.

The second phase of the project is build 30 cars, which will then be made available to a selected group of people by the end of next year. This will cost around R40-million.

The team is currently looking for a black economic empowerment partner to take equity in GridCars.

Following this – as well as having some other investors sign on the dotted line – the plan is to put in place all the required infrastructure.

The duo wants the cars to be build locally, in Gauteng, and is having exploratory talks with the government’s Automotive Industry Development Centre to achieve this.

Jordaan indicates that the Gauteng government has showed interest in the project, however, at this point it is still only talk.

Edited by: Creamer Media Reporter
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