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Joule creator shuts down

After seven years and millions in investment, SA's electric car reaches a dead end.

Optimal Energy, the local company that designed and developed the continent's first electric vehicle, has announced its intention to shut down.

According to a statement released late Friday, the company's management and board, together with major shareholders the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), decided to close down the company at a board meeting held last week.

This comes after Optimal Energy announced the shelving of home-grown electric car the Joule in April, due to lack of funding. In recent months, the parties have been working towards a revised strategy, which would see the company's existing intellectual property re-channelled into an electric bus project.

But, at the board meeting held on Thursday, the IDC and TIA said their involvement in funding the “e-bus” project had been reviewed. Based on the lack of financial support, the board decided to shut down Optimal Energy as soon as possible.

Founded in 2005 and responsible for the design and development of the Joule, the company received strong initial backing from the IDC and the Department of Science and Technology's TIA (then called the Innovation Fund), which have jointly invested around R350 million in the venture. Late last year, however, its funders advised Optimal Energy to find an industry partner to help commercialise the Joule.

It ultimately failed to secure such a partner, which it needed to help foot the R9 billion bill for bringing the electric car to mass production.

Following the Joule's shelving, Optimal Energy hoped to re-deploy the electric drive train and battery system it had developed into a short-term, profitable e-bus project. But support for this plan failed to materialise.

“Although further investigations into the development of alternative mobility solutions to create a revenue stream for Optimal Energy have been investigated and reviewed by both TIA and the IDC, it was concluded that although the project is technically possible, there were several commercial risks that threatened the success of the project,” said the statement.

Optimal Energy produced several demo vehicles of the Joule, a five-seater, zero-emissions passenger car with a range of 300km, and a top speed of 135km/h. It enjoyed strong showings at both the Paris and Geneva Motor Shows, and was designed to be five times more efficient than a petrol or diesel vehicle, with minimal environmental impact, says Optimal Energy.

Despite these advantages, the Joule was also priced fairly high, in the C-class range, and there were concerns about its performance in the local market.

Optimal Energy CEO Kobus Meiring said in the release that he is “extremely disappointed, but confident about the future of electric mobility”.


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