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Life after the Joule

The Joule's electric drive train technology is perfectly suited for integrating into buses, says Optimal Energy's Diana Blake.

Optimal Energy, the company behind SA's long-awaited electric car, the Joule, will now focus on electric buses, after plans to industrialise the Joule were put on hold due to lack of funding.

According to a Business Day report, Optimal Energy CEO Kobus Meiring announced the Joule's shelving to staff in a recent internal communication, citing financial constraints.

While several prototype models have made the rounds at global car shows and on local roads, mass production proved to be the Joule's Achilles' heel, and the company will now begin work on electric buses in conjunction with SA's integrated transport plan.

Director of sales and marketing, Diana Blake, said Optimal Energy will use the Joule's electric drive train and battery system in electric buses as a way to redeploy the technology into a commercially viable product. She explains that getting the Joule to volume production of 50 000 cars required significant funding, which couldn't be secured at this stage.

Optimal Energy was backed by strong initial investments from both the Department of Science and Technology and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), but the estimated R9 billion needed to commercialise the Joule required support from a big industry player, which wasn't forthcoming.

“We tried for about a year to raise the funds and were very reliant on government support. We sat down with the IDC about three to four months ago and explained that we were in a state of limbo, and that we had to re-consider what to do with the technology.”

Blake says the company examined 14 different strategies and did a mini feasibility study on each, with the bus industry emerging as the most promising opportunity for integrating the Joule's drive train system.

According to Blake, entering the electric bus market requires a much smaller amount of upfront capital, with a faster ROI and better growth prospects. She adds that Optimal Energy has spoken to a number of industry players, as well as the IDC, and there is a definite demand for e-buses.

“The main costs for buses are diesel and maintenance, and switching to an electric system can provide savings of at least 20%.”

Optimal Energy hopes to have an engineering prototype of the e-bus ready before the end of the year, and can then enter into discussions with operators to test models in their fleets, says Blake.

“Our main customers for the electric buses will be the BRT (Bus Rapid Transport) as all the large cities are looking to replace old vehicles with cleaner, friendlier buses.”

Blake notes that the company has learned a great deal from developing the Joule, and that integrating the system into buses is far less complicated than manufacturing passenger cars from scratch. “We've also learned to focus on the local market. We're producing buses for SA first, and the world next.”

Rising fuel costs have helped re-energise the electric vehicle market of late, which has traditionally suffered from slow take-off. According to recent data from Bloomberg, electric-drive vehicles were the fastest-growing segment in the US auto market in Q1, with sales rising 49% to 117 182 vehicles. Pike Research also forecast the continuing rise of electrified cars worldwide, with automakers introducing an increasing variety of new models over the next few years.

Blake agrees that both the demand and market for electric cars is growing. “The Joule was put on hold for a little while through no fault of its own. The more electric vehicles that come onto the market, the higher the uptake will be and we have no doubt that electric cars have a significant place in the future of transport.”

Related column:
Joule: electric vapourware

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