by John Elford


At the recent Paris Motor Show, a number of manufacturers unveiled electric vehicles (EVs) whilst a number of hybrid models were also showcased


Some of the latest plug-in hybrids are achieving incredible fuel consumption figures using a combination of the internal combustion engine and the battery-driven electric motor. When running on battery power alone, the battery life is relatively short, however, with the development of the Lithium-ion battery, these vehicles have become increasingly more efficient.

Many manufacturers are opting for this technology, particularly in countries such as South Africa with our long distances between major cities. On the open road, the internal combustion engine helps charge the battery for electric use, either in town or for additional acceleration. Another advantage over electric vehicles is the range, which is not reliant on battery life. Toyota Prius and Porshe with their Panamera 4e-Hybrid unveiled these new hybrid models, at the Paris Motor Show, claiming 1l/100km and 2.52.5l/100k respectively.

Full electric vehicles, on the other hand, have been slower to develop for a number of reasons. Range is still an issue, with most electric vehicles only achieving a maximum of about 300-450km without recharging. This is being addressed with battery technology, in the form of the Lithium-ion battery, growing in leaps and bounds. Recharging time is also an issue. This is not a problem if the vehicle is used to commute, but becomes an issue with long-distance travel. When travelling from Johannesburg to Durban, for example, travellers would have to take a large portion of the trip to stop and recharge. Also, there are not many recharging stations in South Africa. Nissan and BMW have joined resources to roll out charging stations, but these are the only two manufacturers currently marketing EVs in South Africa.

At the motor show, Mercedes-Benz unveiled their MB Generation EQ brand (EQ stands for “Electric Intelligence” and is derived from Mercedes-Benz’s brand values of emotion and intelligence.) The first in the series, an SUV will be launched before the end of the decade and will form part of a new electric car sub-brand called Mercedes-EQ. At the same time, the company revealed the new Smart ForTwo Electric Drive. They claim this is the first convertible full-electric vehicle. VW also unveiled their concept car called the Volkswagen ID, scheduled to go on sale in 2020, which will have a range of over 500km between charges. It is powered by a 125 kW electric motor. The General Motors European subsidiary, Opel, launched their Ampera-e at the show. Based on the Chevrolet Bolt, the Ampera-e is able to do up to 500km on a single charge but, at present, it is only available in left-hand drive. The French manufacturer Renault showcased an updated version of its Zoe electric car with a range of approximately 300km.

Electric vehicles were first introduced in the mid-19th century and, amazingly, an electric vehicle held the land speed record until around 1900. The most notable record was the breaking of the 100 km/h speed barrier, by Camille Jenatzy on 29 April 1899 in his ‘rocket-shaped’ vehicle Jamais Contente, reaching a top speed of 105.88 km/h. The short range, low top speed of the battery-driven vehicles compared to internal combustion engines led to the decline in their use right up until the end of the 20th century when the interest in electric and other alternative fuelled vehicles once again gained momentum. The development of the battery with longer range and shorter charging times made this possible. Electric vehicles were very successful from the turn of the 20th century till about 1910, when large petroleum reserves were found, which led to the cost of petrol being more affordable and lowering operating costs over long distances. The road network was also improving and this allowed internal combustion engine cars to travel further and faster than their equivalent electric counterparts. The electric starter also helped make petrol vehicles more popular as operators did not have to hand crank them to start. Also, the invention of a muffler helped keep petrol powered vehicles quieter.

The introduction of mass-produced petrol vehicles by Henry Ford brought the price down and, by contrast, the price of an electric vehicle of similar specification was double the price. By 1930, however, there were no electric cars being produced, although specialist vehicles such as milk carts and golf carts continued to be manufactured. Electric trains and trolley buses also continued to be built.,Years passed before an interest in electric cars re-emerged. From the late 1950s, a number of manufacturers experimented with electric cars. Henney Coach Works, in conjunction with the manufacturers of Exide batteries, built the Henney Kilowatt, designed around the Renault Dauphine. This had a top speed of 96km/hr and could run for an hour on a single charge. Many of the US automakers built electric cars, and in 1990, General Motors launched the GM EV 1. In an unusual move, the buyers were not allowed to purchase the car, but had to sign an agreement to return it to the manufacturer.

With battery technology growing in leaps and bounds, Tesla Motors launched the Tesla Roadster in 2004. This was based on the Lotus Elise. The first cars were delivered to the public in 2008 and were the first highway-legal production all-electric car to use a Lithium-Ion battery. Following this, Tesla introduced the Model S and the Model X. It can be said that Tesla was the catalyst that helped reinvent the modern electric car.

In 2011, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV became the first electric car to sell more than 10 000 units. The Nissan Leaf, which is available in SA, broke this record when it sold 50 000 units.

Although EVs in South Africa are not popular, mainly because of the long distances in SA and charging times, this will surely change as the battery life extends and charging becomes easier and more spread out.

An invention from the 1800s has re-invented itself and seems to be its way to greater things.

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