Driving Green – Are we ready to save the world?
Going Green is by no means a new concept. In fact, it’s been around since even before Al Gore’s movie-documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”. In most aspects, South Africa has embraced this idea, and government is slowly introducing more Green initiatives. There is, however, no real incentive provided to the public, by the government, to Go Green, unlike those embraced in Europe and North America. The government can count themselves fortunate, as there hasn’t been a big uproar from the public to have this changed. The availability of green cars, in the form of hybrid’s, electric and even hydrogen powered cars, is in an even more feeble state, with only a handful of hybrid’s available. Surprisingly, the government managed to introduce a tax on the levels of CO2 emitted by your car without offering alternatives, investing in any hydrogen or electric car “refuelling” infrastructure or offering tax rebates. Although it caused great discussion and concern in the media and from the public, most South Africans are unable to identify any electric or hydrogen cars available to them. So, let’s see if what is out there is worth the effort of having them imported and sold in South Africa.
Note: This list focuses only on full-sized electric cars available for purchase or pre-order. Also, the list does not include Microcars (single-seater electric cars) or Low-speed electric cars, both aimed for inner city driving, but may not be street-legal.
[T]he first electric car made available for public sale was the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf is a five-door, five-seater hatchback, which offers a 160km journey between charges, with an approximate charge time of 13 hours from 0-100% battery. Once the three lights are lit up (meaning that the battery is completely charged), you are now able to set off again, reaching a maximum speed of 150kmph. The 2011 release of the Nissan Leaf offers a solar panel optional extra to allow the use of radio, air-conditioning while the car is parked, without using any of the battery power. Standard features include cruise control, air-conditioning, and a in-car display system controlling the Satellite Navigation and radio. The in-car system also provides a list of all possible charging points closest to you, when you are away from home, although it proves quite useless given the amount charging points in South Africa, zero. All things considered, the Leaf is usefully equipped and provides at least two days worth of average driving. However, the biggest talking point of this car, and all other electric cars, is the cost. With prices starting at roughly R250,000, before any import tax and likes are added, this is not what is defined as cheap motoring.
Peugot also offers an alternative electric car known as the iOn. As with the Nissan Leaf, this too is a five-door hatchback, which offers speeds of 135kmph and acceleration of 0-100 in 16 seconds. Unlike the Leaf, the engine within the iOn is fitted in the rear, underneath the boot where the fuel tank used to be. The iOn will cost R350,000, again before any taxes are added. Unfortunately, the iOn is not fitted with as much gimmicks as in the Leaf, and its only bragging right it has over its counterpart its extended driving range of close to 200km, requiring similar charge times.
The Asian sister of the Peugeot iOn is the Mitsubishi i MiEV, offering the exact same specifications and features as the iOn. The only difference in the two cars is its interior design, slightly different exterior and price range. Another of the available electric cars is the Th!nk City, with a 180km range and a top speed of 110kmph. However, it has not grabbed any headlines in the electric car industry and has been largely overshadowed by the Leaf and iOn.
The previous models have all been smaller, electric hatchbacks, and do not offer much in the way of excitement and looks. The question no doubt on everyone’s mind is whether it is possible to produce electric cars that offer some level of excitement and greater top speeds. The following manufacturers have certainly stood out as providing just that, coupled with stylish looks.
Tesla Model S
An American company known as Tesla, named after one of, if not the greatest, forefathers of electricity, is the first of the two manufacturers considered. Much like Nikola Tesla was unheard of due to his opposing ideas to that of Edison, not much is known about Tesla Motor Company by the general public. Tesla offers two electric cars, the sports car Roadster and the sedan Model S. We focus on the latter. The Model S offers an impressive 450km range between charges, which take 8 hours to complete on average. Also impressive is its top speed. With speeds of 200kmph and 0-100kmph in 5.6 seconds, the Model S gives something for most to look forward to, only eclipsed by its big brother Roadster that clocks in a top speed of around 210kmph, but does not offer the same level of luxury, comfort, range or extras. The Model S offers air-conditioning, SatNav, seating for 7 and a 17 inch touch screen interface. With the base model starting at R450,000, the only pitfall of this remarkably comfortable and speedy car is the cost, although it has quite a lot to offer.
The second of the electric car manufacturers, offering what we expect from cars today, is the Fisker Automotive, which manufactures the Fiska Karma. This four-seater, luxury sports car has two electric motors, which produce a top speed of 220kmph. However, the battery pack only allows a maximum travelling distance of 90km, which, due to the twin electric motors, is variable. This means the Karma has to be equipped with a hybrid, fuel engine, a 2l turbo. Prices of the Karma, what the manufacturers consider reasonable, start at R610,000. Fiska Automotive do allow the added option of fully configuring your car online, before it is shipped to you.
Pricing, then, of electric cars are too high, even with its advantages to the environment. Electric cars often have bigger luggage capacity owing to the removal of fuel tanks, and are considerably lighter than petrol or diesel versions on the account of not needing gear box thanks to the electric engine. Charging remains the biggest downside of purchasing an electric car today.
Alternatives to the long charging delays are, what are known as, fast-charge points. These charging points will only be available at the different manufacturer outlets, but offer half to 100% of the range with a drastically reduced charge time of 30-45 minutes. However, this also has its drawbacks, as the more fast-charges you use, the sooner your battery pack will need replacing. This is not particular good news, as the life expectancy of today’s batteries are between 5 and 10 years and costs in the region of R70,000 – R90,000. If, for some reason, you struggle to grasp the concept of why this happens, just think of your phone and its battery and how after a few months of excessive use, you end up having to charge it every night when you get home, then twice a day, as it gets progressively worse. Considering that the equivalent cars above cost half the price for petrol and diesel versions, the world would be spending an average of R150,000 more on each electric car purchased. Given the current fuel costs in South Africa and an average fuel bill of R1,500-R2,000 per month, it would take 8 years before you start benefitting from the reduced monthly costs. Having said this, fuel costs will unlikely be the same today as it is in 8 years time, and if you take the maximum lifespan of the electric car batteries, you would only be saving money for 2 more years (estimated without considering the cost of electricity to charge your electric car).
EV Engineers of Europe have, however, gone on record stating that the technologies for electrical cars will halve in cost by 2018. This provides some good news for motorists of the near future, but still not good enough to save the planet today. And with the price of crude oil constantly on the rise and carbon levels still increasing, these cuts in manufacturing costs are required much sooner. Also required are longer lasting battery packs, as the cost of having to purchase a new battery pack every 5-10 years is not feasible. The disposal of these exhausted batteries also become an issue with the environment, as recycling them are of the utmost importance.
No doubt there are many reasons why we can’t just replace all the current fuel-consuming cars on the roads today. Even if the more obvious issues are sorted out tomorrow, it is still debatable whether electric cars are a practicable replacement. If fast-charging is a practical option, not reducing the already short life of the battery, and the possibility to charging your electric car is as freely available as fuel stations are today, then maybe going all out green is not such an absurd thought, and it may not be too late to save the world.