R1.5bn needed for electric car

Paul Vecchiatto
By Paul Vecchiatto, ITWeb Cape Town correspondent
Cape Town, 06 Apr 2009

Optimal Energy, developer of the Joule electric car, needs R1.5 billion to bring it to full production, it says.

However, it has enough funding to begin low-rate manufacturing towards the end of this year, it adds.

SA's first locally designed electric car was unveiled at last year's Paris Auto event. It received R50 million in funding from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and a further R50 million from the Industrial Development Corporation.

The five shareholders have also contributed their own money and so far about R80 million has been spent on development.

Tempting government

Diana Blake, Optimal Energy marketing manager, says a second fully-functional prototype of the vehicle is being built and will be used for extensive testing, while a third prototype will be built and used mainly for marketing purposes.

“We are in advanced negotiations about where to build the car and government has been very supportive of our intentions,” she says.

Cabinet announced in March that an inter-ministerial committee (IMC) was being set up to evaluate the options of government investing in the commercialisation of the battery electric vehicle. The IMC will be made up of the DST, National Treasury, and the departments of transport, environmental affairs and tourism, minerals and energy, and trade and industry.

Blake says this committee will ensure certain needs for the use of the vehicle on the roads are met, such as the development of a charging infrastructure.

“It is not unusual for governments around the world to be involved in a project such as this on that basis,” she notes.

Blake says the Joule would enter low-rate production towards the end of the year, with full industrialisation expected to take place around 2012. A round of capital-raising from the private sector will take place in order to help fund this.

“So far, we have not spent much on the development, only R80 million, which is tiny compared to what has been spent in other countries on projects of this nature,” she says.

Renewable energy

Most of the vehicle's components are either designed or manufactured in SA, but Blake says some of these will still have to be imported for the time being.

Local technology that has been used in the design of the vehicle are the battery packs that have been developed using the IBM Blue Gene super computer, located at the Centre for High Performance Computing. The electric motor was also designed and developed in the country.

Kobus Meiring, CEO of Optimal Energy, says: “Optimal Energy is capitalising on SA's technological prowess, its track record of building premium cars for the export market, the current sea of change in transport technology brought about by climate change, pollution and energy security issues, and the immense progress in battery technology.

“Optimal Energy aims to place SA at the frontline of the renewable energy movement with Joule. This investment helps us to drive the industrialisation process, taking us to the next level.”

Graham Geldenhuys, CEO of professional services firm Step Strategic Venturing, says: “There is no question that the electric vehicle is a part of our future. It is a privilege working with a company such as Optimal Energy with a business case that has so much potential to tap into the significant opportunity in the alternative energy vehicle market.”

Cleaning up

Meiring says interest in the vehicle has been enormous, both at a local and international level.

“Current market conditions are slowing down the traditional manufacturers' efforts, while the market, especially for clean vehicles, is predicted to be in a strong upward swing from 2012 onwards,” he says.

Once production of Joule begins, Meiring estimates Optimal Energy, which currently employs more than 80 highly-skilled personnel, will directly increase headcount to around 1 000 employees. A further approximately 5 000 people will be employed in various related and support industries.

Meiring says the Joule will also shatter the stereotype of electric cars being small, slow and unsightly.

The Joule is a passenger vehicle with up to six seats, which combines efficiency and performance with a stylish design. The vehicle was designed by world renowned Keith Helfet, South African-born former Jaguar designer; and received positive reviews following its 2008 Paris Motor Show unveiling.

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