Skills pivotal to transition towards electric mobility

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 21 Jun 2022

South Africa falls short of the electrical engineering and mechatronics skills required to facilitate the growth of the electric vehicle (EV) market throughout the value chain.

This is one of the key findings of the 2022 Green Economy Market Intelligence report compiled by non-profit GreenCape.

The study is one of several developed in partnership with the Western Cape Government Department of Economic Development and Tourism, the Western Cape Government Department of Agriculture, and the City of Cape Town’s Department of Enterprise and Investment.

It highlights current green economy investment opportunities in the Western Cape, while also providing national context.

According to the report, there is a shortage of the EV-skilled workers required to promote the steady growth of SA’s market for fully-electric, battery-powered, hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. The shortage of specialist maintenance technicians and engineers potentially puts the local EV sector at risk, it states.

SA’s EV market trails behind the global market, with just over 15 000 units on the roads. However, experts say it is ripe for more growth, provided a conducive environment is created, according to the Global Electric Vehicle Outlook report for 2022.

South Africa is a major manufacturer and exporter of vehicles, with the local automotive industry rated the fifth-largest exporting sector in the local economy in 2021, contributing 6.4% to the nation's Gross Domestic Product, according to the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC).

SA’s major export car markets − which include the UK and Europe − have introduced policies to stop the importation of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030, as more governments across the globe accelerate their journeys to sustainable resource consumption.

Remember the Joule?

As local production remains imperative to contributing to the country’s economy, original equipment manufacturers should have sufficient skills to accommodate the local manufacturing of EVs and foster growth in the adoption rate, according to the GreenCape report.

“There are currently insufficient skills in the automotive market and ancillary services to adapt to the growth of the EV manufacturing industry. More electrical engineering and mechatronics skills will be required.

“There is a need to upskill existing technicians to facilitate the transition towards electric mobility. This training is also essential for first-level emergency responders, dealerships and aftermarket services, as these sectors play an important role in a functioning transport sector,” notes the report.

The growing digital skills dearth remains the biggest challenge facing business and it has become a major threat to SA’s fourth industrial revolution progress, according to the Institute of IT Professionals South Africa.

EVs are widely considered to be key in the move to a smart, low-carbon future, with various players attempting to shape the South African EV market, with mixed results.

In 2008, Optimal Energy unveiled the Joule, SA’s first locally-produced and -designed fully electric car, but had shelved the car and shut its doors by mid-2012.

Since then, several manufacturers, including EV start-ups, have been involved in local manufacturing of EV components and charging infrastructure.

At the end of last year, Toyota Motors SA announced it had invested R2.6 billion in building the Corolla Cross hybrid vehicle range, the first hybrid vehicle to be manufactured on South African soil.

The Toyota Corolla Cross.
The Toyota Corolla Cross.

Volkswagen SA is conducting research on the sale of EVs in the local market; however, it has not detailed any plans for local manufacturing.

According to the GreenCape report, the necessary foundation for the transition to EV platforms is needed in SA, requiring design and development engineers from the mechanical or electronic domain, or cross-domain engineering, to drive digital transformation in the automotive industry.

Furthermore, new maintenance and aftermarket service capabilities will be required and SA’s academic institutions need to produce qualified electrical engineers and mechatronics for the workforce, adds the report.

“Notwithstanding, car manufacturers and charging infrastructure companies are the most active investors in the market, with limited current activity from battery companies. Ultimately, the production cost of EVs would reduce significantly with economies of scale volume increases. For this increased production to happen, there is a need to facilitate local demand for EVs.”

The good news, according to GreenCape, is that the Western Cape has taken several steps in establishing itself as a hub for the EV industry in SA, specifically from a skills development perspective.

“Several Western Cape-based organisations are already involved in the skills development value chain in the EV industry, as the industry prepares for the impending transition. These include the Porsche After-sales Vocational Education Training Centre, Retail Motor Industry Organisation, Automotive Remanufacturers’ Association and the Vehicle Testing Association, which have introduced training programmes to educate an automotive workforce in courses focused on technological disruptors in the sector.”

Presidential push

South Africans currently have a limited selection of fully electric cars to choose from. These include the BMW i3, Volvo XC40 Recharge, Jaguar I-Pace, Range Rover Sport, BMW iX, Mini Cooper SE, Porsche Taycan and Taycan Cross Turismo.

More electric vehicles are expected to make their way to the local market this year.

Last year, president Cyril Ramaphosa announced government is paving the way for the local production of EVs, as part of the new Automotive Production Development Programme (APDP), which came into operation in July.

Ramaphosa highlighted the important contribution the local production of EVs will make to SA’s economy, noting Toyota Motors SA is setting the trend for more vehicle manufacturers to follow.

He pointed out that through the introduction of new policies, such as the APDP, government is committed to supporting the local EV market. It is making inroads to ensure SA develops production capacity in what is anticipated to be a growing part of the local automotive market, Ramaphosa stated.

The APDP calls for a globally competitive and transformed industry that actively contributes to the sustainable development of SA’s productive economy, creating prosperity for industry stakeholders and the broader society, he noted.

As part of the APDP implementation strategy, the DTIC introduced the Draft Auto Green Paper on the advancement of new energy vehicles in SA, which sets out a proposed roadmap to the local production of EVs and components in SA.

The National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA (NAAMSA) has for years been urging government to create a favourable environment for the importation and local production of EVs, as an important development for the automotive industry.

Other lingering factors to be addressed include lowering the price of EVs, recycling of EV batteries, lowering the high import tax, the introduction of governmental incentive programmes and the development of more charging infrastructure across SA, according to NAAMSA.