A major step forward in decarbonising South Africa’s transport sector

Taxis have been in the news a lot over the past few months and not in a good way. The taxi strike in Cape Town brought the city to its knees with millions of rands lost and tragic loss of life. But there has actually also been some good taxi-related news, as unlikely as that may sound. Researchers at Stellenbosch University and their industry partner Rham Equipment (a mining equipment manufacturer) have managed to successfully convert a petrol-powered minibus taxi into an electric taxi.

The project, sponsored by the South African National Energy Development Institute, entailed removing the taxi’s internal combustion engine, petrol tank, gas pipe and radiator, and replacing these with a kit made up of an electric motor, inverter, charger, and other relevant equipment to power the vehicle. According to South African road safety regulations with which the taxi has to comply, no permanent changes may be made to the chassis of the vehicle—the base frame of the car. So this basically just means that the outside will stay the same and the insides are replaced. 

The taxi is energy efficient with the ability to harness the energy generated when slowing down or going downhill. Its range is about 120 km with a maximum speed of 120km/h. Its electric motor power is 90kW and has a battery capacity of 53.76kWh. These specs are expected to improve as the team fine tunes the design and EV technology develops. 

Where to from here?

As we speak, the retrofitted taxi is undergoing all the obligatory roadworthy testing and legal processes after which the team can start testing and validating their research. Researcher on the project, Stephan Lacock, reports that right off the bat the team has received significant positive feedback, having already received requests from companies and private owners to retrofit their taxis. By the end of this year, the team plans to have made the necessary design improvements to put together a set kit to use on more taxis by the beginning of 2024. 

They’re not stopping at taxis though. The next step in the project is to retrofit a Golden Arrow bus in a similar way. The team have hit the road running and aim to be finished with the bus by the first week of October. This impressive timeline is partly due to the fact that the bus will be quicker and simpler to retrofit as there is more space and weight available for large battery packs and better electric components like the electric motor. 

What about charging?

In terms of implementation, the most immediate concern that needs to be addressed is the charging times and energy supply for charging. The taxi takes about two hours to charge fully—much longer than quickly pulling into the BP. While the charging times, performance and range are expected to improve, there is still no getting around the fact that charging just does take longer than fueling up. And in an industry that is infamous for its need for speed, this is important to take into consideration. PhD student Johan Giliomee points out that most taxis are largely stationery, or at least far less busy, between the early morning and evening commutes. This is the ideal time for charging. Overnight charging is also a good charging window and the added benefit here is that electricity demand is at its lowest at night

Any mention of electricity demand automatically triggers a shudder for any given South African. We cannot talk about the grid without talking about Eskom. According to Giliomee, were we to electrify all taxis, it would add a 5% load on top of what the grid can currently deliver (already very little). But the idea is not to charge EVs with coal-powered energy anyway. What we really need, and what it so often comes down to, is widespread readily available clean green energy for zero carbon charging. If electric taxis and buses are going to be rolled out at scale as is the plan, this need will become all the more urgent.  

How do taxi drivers feel about all this? 

Right from the start of the project, the team have worked with the Western Cape Taxi Association to get feedback from taxi drivers and determine their interest in moving to electric vehicles, inviting Zolla Mnyanda, the previous Western Cape Taxi Association president to a visit with the industry partners to establish an understanding. 

The taxi industry in South Africa is massive, making up a whopping 50-98% of daily commutes in urban areas—that’s somewhere around 15 million commutes daily. A move to electric in this sector would be a major leap forward for decarbonising transport in the country as well as lowering both air and noise pollution. 

But without buy-in from taxi drivers, even if we have the technology, the move to electric will simply not happen. With this in mind, the team undertook a research project with over 4000 survey responses to understand how taxi drivers and taxi owners feel about the potential of transitioning to EVs, the first research of its kind in South Africa. Only 38% of respondents in the study said that they would be willing to buy an EV when they become available. The study asked drivers questions relating to their perception of cost of both EVs and ICE vehicles, risk perceptions for both, and environmental considerations, among other things. The biggest concern for most drivers is the cost and reliability of EVs. And so, with concerted effort and targeted interventions, there is a lot of potential to improve drivers’ willingness to move to EVs by providing them with more information. For example, the move to electric taxis is not only beneficial for the environment. It will also help to lower the operating costs from petrol and maintenance expenses. Filling taxi drivers in on the costs that they can cut by moving to electric will drastically improve the general attitude towards the transition. And retrofitted taxis are significantly less expensive than newly manufactured EV taxis. Most of the commuters who travel in taxis hail from extremely low income areas, so lowering the cost of transport, or at least avoiding price hikes when the petrol prices go up, will be a huge added benefit for them too. 

The study also found that environmental concerns play a role in taxi drivers willingness to make the transition. What is particularly interesting about this is that, in the words of the author,

“environmental awareness is generally considered to be a luxury afforded mainly to socio-economically advantaged classes.”

As most taxi drivers fall on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, the study proves this perception to be false. But ultimately, the results showed that while environmental concerns play a not insignificant role, it is personal safety and cost effectiveness that are the biggest concerns amongst taxi drivers so it is these concerns that should be emphasised in educational and promotional campaigns. 

To decarbonise the transport sector, we cannot rely solely on innovative practical solutions like Stellenbosch and Rham Equipment retrofitted taxis. Educational campaigns to create a general paradigm shift about electric transport plus policy and regulatory frameworks to improve charging infrastructure must be a high priority. 

The takeaway 

Electrifying the taxi industry can be seen as an interesting microcosm for the general project of moving South Africa towards a decarbonised society. Navigating the social, practical, and political dynamics requires careful and nuanced interventions, policies, and innovation. It is vital to get input and buy in from all stakeholders. It is also a great opportunity for job-creation and a way to move an old, carbon intensive industry into the future to keep pace with a changing world and ensure that South Africa does not fall behind. A significant proportion of South Africa’s GDP comes from automotive manufacturing and exports, and as Europe starts to ban ICE vehicles, this industry will quickly come under threat. We need to adjust rapidly to avoid widespread job loss and building skills in retrofitting petrol cars and building EVs will be essential to this adjustment.

This breakthrough from Stellenbosch and Rham Equipment is a hugely exciting leap forward for the essential project of decarbonising South Africa’s transport industry. It is also a sign of the amazing initiatives and progress that are being made in the EV sector. While there is still a long road ahead, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic, which is about as much as we can ask for!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Josie is a writer and researcher who wants to do her bit to make the world a little greener. She holds an MA in Philosophy from Stellenbosch University and is currently working on her doctoral proposal.

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