SA’s first EV road trip is a meaningless meander

There’s a cold war happening on the streets of South Africa. To sell more EVs in a country with a unique relationship with its energy utility is always going to be a tough task. Our two biggest power stations are still incomplete and the astronomical debts may very well sink the economy, and the monopoly Eskom has on our electricity supply makes it difficult to bet on renewables. Car manufacturers, however, are under increasing pressure to change their business to rally against the devastating effects of climate change. For many that means a halt in production of vehicles that are literally belching out carbon with every engine cycle. The theory is that removing the internal combustion engine from our roads will save the planet, or at least help.

Problem is that here in Mzansi #EVRTAfrica2019 is a non-starter because no-one cares. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said before that the Jaguar i-Pace is one of the best cars on the road right now and I am firmly of the belief that electric vehicles are the future, but again the marketing is a little left of the mark. Click on the hashtag link above and you’ll be met with tales of fantasy.

Yes, the itinerary is chock full of side quests and adventures to keep the influencer accounts ticking over as the trip tries to trend, but heading into the Addo Elephant Park in a diesel-powered game viewer underlines the mixed messages they’re sending to the public. Surely Jaguar could’ve spared a couple of extra I-Paces to finesse the fynbos and not freak out the pachyderms?

Driving two city cars cross-country says nothing about the manufacturer claims and only amplifies the range anxiety narrative. EVs are largely horses for courses like the max 450km range (in factory controlled conditions) on the i-Pace translates to about 380km off of a charge if you want to drive at reasonable highway speeds. The BMW i3 is great as a peak traffic commuter with good acceleration from a standstill, but less suited to sustained speeds above 80km/h. I don’t have any experience with the new Leaf+ but the first generation was strictly for grabbing groceries or heading on a school run to get back home for a charge.

You see, EVs don’t like you to constantly be on the accelerator pedal because that’s when it’s depleting the battery. EVs also don’t coast because any deceleration is used for energy recovery. A happy medium, then, is stop-start traffic of urban centres.

The open road is also a less concentrated situation with, in South Africa at least, vast stretches of grassland or fynbos. As we learnt with the massive panic over the burning Amazon rain forest, the best way to capture carbon is grasslands and not forests. Just like most of our oxygen comes from the ocean as well. EVs are far less efficient in those scenarios as well because the 8-day raodtrip had daily stops for recharging where humans consumed food that wasn’t grown at the locations where they stopped and certainly not delivered by EVs, the sheets they slept on would then be washed after one use using detergents and potable water… You get the picture?

And that brings me to my final point: the greenwashing needs to stop. These car companies need to market the vehicles as better alternatives to their fleet of ICE, but only in the circumstances that make sense. Instead of trying to sell an X-Class and a GLE to high-earning couple, why not push the X-Class for travel and adventure and the EQC for going out on the town and hitting the daily commute?

I’ll tell you why: because that will point out the obvious, decrease the numbers of GLEs been manufactured and wipe out employment sectors that the German government is committed to protecting. That’s why there’s a delay on those vehicles and the still forthcoming Volkswagen ID.3, the Labour unions will revolt and these massive automakers are too invested in that sweet dinosaur juice that also means more complex engineering and the associated higher maintenance costs.

So yes, I’m happy that EVs are getting some decent press, but the carbon footprint of this marketing exercise that does nothing to address real potential customer concerns or educate consumers on ideal use cases is massive. And that’s before we even start counting the carbon emissions from the electricity generation.

We need more charging infrastructure and EV ownership incentives among private businesses. More stations at shopping malls and places of work, more subsidies, and better real-world education about the real lifestyle choices that negates the decision to go electric.

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