Cleaner mobility relies on collaboration like never before

In August this year South Africa’s first e-taxi was introduced to industry players and road users. The excitement around this development was palpable, but this is only the start of our journey to transforming the transport sector in accordance with South Africa’s Just Energy Transition and our commitment to meeting our obligation to contributing to a carbon-neutral world by 2050. Dr Neville Smith from SANEDI writes that success depends on collaboration.

According to naamsa (the Automotive Business Council) statistics, total new energy vehicle (NEV) sales in 2022 amounted to 4 764, an exponential jump from the 202 sold in 2018 – but still only a miniscule 0.88% of total vehicle sales in South Africa.

While individual vehicle owners certainly have a role to play in the mainstream adoption of NEVs, we can make a swift and powerful impact by targeting fleets. For this reason, SANEDI has launched its EV Minibus Taxi (MBT) retrofit project within its Cleaner Mobility Programme.

Getting the first prototype on the road was a significant milestone, but just as a single swallow doesn’t make a summer, one e-taxi doesn’t make cleaner mobility a reality.

To advance the cause, much remains to be done. While the e-MBT retrofit project explores vehicle safety measures and improving vehicle performance, our strategy to scale the project relies on industry and government collaboration and transport.

In its thought leadership discussion document on NEVs for South Africa, released in February this year, naamsa eloquently makes the case for decarbonising road transport locally and across the world. The latter is an important consideration for naamsa, given that 63% of light passenger vehicles manufactured in South Africa are exported – about 77% of those going to Europe where the demand for NEVs is growing fast. In addition, the South African Automotive Masterplan [SAAM] 2021 – 2035 sets ambitious targets for local NEV sales, ie, 20% of the total by 2025, 40% by 2030 and 60% by 2035.

Meeting these targets and maintaining our export markets will depend on appropriate support to stimulate demand for NEVs as well as the manufacture of NEVs and NEV components in the country. The only way to achieve this, is by throwing the collaboration net as far and wide as possible.

As its name – the South African National Energy Development Institute – indicates, SANEDI is single-mindedly focused on turning a green-energy future for South Africa into reality by supporting the development of a wide range of technologies and bringing them to commercial readiness. This includes establishing an enabling policy environment, as well as the necessary manufacturing capabilities – both in terms of technology and skills – and consumer demand.

The MBT retrofit project is a good example of the level of collaboration required, and of the results that can be achieved.

South Africa's transport sector ranks as the second-largest contributor to pollution after the electricity supply industry, and accounts for 13% of CO₂ emissions. Road transport alone accounts for 91.2% of the total emissions in the country. Retrofitting the more than 250 000 MBTs on our roads can contribute significantly to transforming the transport sector. Professor MJ Booysens from the University of Stellenbosch’s Faculty of Engineering suggests that many of these vehicles are roadworthy and could undergo a transformation by swapping out their conventional propulsion systems, such as diesel or petrol engines, fuel tanks, and gearboxes, in favour of electric motors and regenerative braking. The retrofitting process involves the addition of a large battery and battery management system.

Developing this technology and the capability to manufacture it locally – which SANEDI is undertaking with the University of Stellenbosch, Rham Equipment and Oxford University – will benefit the entire automotive sector. As naamsa notes in its thought leadership document: “…vehicle exports to the domestic automotive industry’s top export destinations, the UK and the EU, are subject to strict Rules of Origin requiring 60% local content in a vehicle to ensure duty-free access. Without battery manufacturing in South Africa or the UK and the EU, flexibility in the strict Rules of Origin requirements would be imperative for ongoing duty-free market access.”

Pooling research funds, skills and facilities is critical if we stand a chance of turning South Africa’s Green Transport Strategy for 2018-2050 into reality. One of the most important outcomes of such collaboration has to be clear and powerful industry input into policies that will facilitate and enable the transport sector’s transformation.

South Africa has committed to a fixed target for GHG emission levels of 398 to 510 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 equivalent by 2025, and 350 to 420 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030. None of us can achieve this goal by ourselves, but by working together we may even exceed it.