Stable power supply is needed before jump-starting the automotive revolution in SA

A Toyota Camry hybrid is offered for sale at a dealership on February 6 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo: AFP

A Toyota Camry hybrid is offered for sale at a dealership on February 6 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo: AFP

Published Mar 20, 2024


Is the future of mobility conventional combustion engine vehicles that use fossil fuels such as petrol or diesel? Or is it a hydrogen fuel or the hydrogen battery motor vehicle? Or will it be electric motor vehicles? The jury is out. Only the future will tell.

The automotive industry is undergoing a technological revolution with rapid innovation. Electric engine advancement has changed the process of how vehicles are manufactured across the globe.

During 2023 and the early part of 2024, most automakers were excited to take a leap of faith into the future of electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing.

What is interesting, was that car giant Toyota, after extensive studies and research and manufacturing, finally settled on abandoning its strategy to build only EVs car engines.

Instead, Toyota opted to pursue a hybrid engines vehicles-based manufacturing strategy. Hybrid meaning that Toyota would not stop manufacturing conventional combustion fuel engines, but would in addition to their future strategy build hybrid electric engine vehicles. They are good at making good cars – it was only logical.

Toyota is a Japanese company with American roots. The Japanese follow a management philosophy called first principles thinking, which is a problem-solving technique that requires you to break down a complex problem into its most basic, foundational elements.

And we in South Africa tend to apply the opposite philosophy. South African leaders only identify the problem at the tipping point of the crisis without ever drilling down to the main root cause and without applying first principles thinking.

That is why South Africa faces an energy crisis, transport crisis and now a water crisis. We create a problem and look for the root cause at the end of the tip end of the problem.

That needs to change. We can take lessons from the Japanese. Toyota’s environmentally-friendly car manufacturing strategy is called the 1:6:90 Rule strategy. The strategy means that for every one full EV Toyota can build, they can build six plug-in hybrid vehicles, and the same scale and for the same effort they can cheaply build 90 non plug-in hybrid vehicles for the same effort as building one EV. The strategy means that for every one EV Toyota can build, they can build six hydrogen vehicles, and the same scale and for the same effort they can cheaply build 100 hybrid vehicles for the same effort as building one EV.

While most industry experts and leading manufacturers thought that the switch away from and phasing out fossil fuel combustion engine vehicles would happen much more quickly than it has, technological limitations and challenges have forced car manufacturers to reconsider their manufacturing strategies.

Recent studies and reports also show that major automakers are reversing and taking a U-turn against only manufacturing EVs, but have decided to retain their competencies and capabilities in producing combustion fuel engines as well.

One must bear in mind Elon Musk had to overhaul the entire manufacturing process for Tesla and said he had to radically rethink conventional manufacturing methods to do so. Other automotive car companies face the same challenge.

However, one thing is certain is that the demand for cars is not going away.

As the populations in many developing countries explode exponentially, so will the need to own an automobile increase. This follows as public transport infrastructure is very poor in many population-dense regions of the world. And owning a vehicle is still a growing symbol of success and social achievement.

If anyone had predicted that in 2024 the demand for cars in emerging economies would increase, they would have been dismissed out of hand as being overly optimistic. Yet today that is the reality. We are seeing more cars on the roads even in the most rural and remote parts of Africa and Latin America.

EVs, on the other hand, have not escaped the resources curse. They consume more resources than ordinary combustion cars in comparison. Combustion engine cars have reached a life cycle in material usage and utilisation.

EVs consume 10 times more demanding rare earth minerals than combustion engines and are natural resources hungry.

They also use a much greater quantity of resources such as coal, diesel and natural gas in the manufacturing processes. And further use huge quantities of lithium, cobalt or nickel minerals during the manufacturing process before leaving the plant.

A single EV during manufacturing produces 13 608kg of CO₂ before reaching a showroom. This is just during the manufacturing process. EV manufacturing and daily running charging produces more pollution than conventional engine vehicles.

Breakdown of CO₂ emissions in the transportation sector worldwide 2022, by sub-sector

According to Ian Tiseo, the distribution of carbon dioxide emissions produced by the transportation sector worldwide in 2022, by sub-sector, published on September 22, 2023: “The global transportation sector is a major polluter, producing more than 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (GtCO₂) a year. Cars and vans were the biggest source of transportation emissions that year, accounting for approximately 48%of global transportation emissions.”

Road transportation emissions

Global CO₂ emissions from cars and vans reached a peak of 3.6 GtCO₂ in 2019, before plummeting 11% the following year. Car emissions fell dramatically in 2020 due to the outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent restrictions on mobility. While emissions have increased since then, they remain below pre-pandemic levels, Tiseo said.

Meanwhile, medium and heavy trucks accounted for roughly a quarter of transportation emissions in 2022, despite them representing a small share of vehicles.

Where are transportation emissions highest?

The US, followed by China and India, is by far the largest producer of transportation emissions worldwide. Between 1975 and 2007, US transportation sector CO₂ emissions increased 56% to over 2 billion metric tons. Although emissions have fallen since then, they still amounted to more than 1.8 GtCO₂ in 2022, Tiseo said.

So is the electric car an environmentally friendly vehicle or is it just a feel-good emotionally appealing clean technology? Are we ready as South Africa to embrace the electric car revolution?

With the state of our energy crisis and power blackouts. I would say, “No, we are not ready, not even close to the starting line in the transition away from combustion engines vehicles technology.”

The best we could do as a country is to start by gradually buying hybrid engine vehicles before taking a leap of faith in Eskom, or independent power producers, in guaranteeing a stable power supply with enough electricity needed to not just keep the lights on, but to power the local EV revolution.

However, the main reason why the automotive industry needs to shift away from combustion engines to electric or cleaner energy automobiles is because of the CO₂ emissions. So a gradual step would be to adopt a hybrid engines technology system. It’s cleaner and relatively cheap to manufacture and run daily.

But only once South Africa has sorted out its electricity problems can we fully embrace EVs as a country. At this stage we also don’t have the infrastructure to charge EVs en masse. By the time these headwinds fall away, EVs price will have dramatically improved – a bonus.

Before we get there, there is a lot of work to do. But once South Africa secures a reliable electricity supply, it will jump-start the country. We have come this far despite all the challenges, we are still going far and we will succeed as a country. The future will be bright.

Crown Prince Adil Nchabeleng is president of Transform RSA and an independent energy expert.

* The views in this column are independent of “Business Report” and Independent Media.