South Africa’s Joule Electric Car

by on December 5, 2008 at 6:04 am

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Optimal Energy CEO Kobus Meiring Presenting the Joule Electric Car

Who Killed the Electric Car? is a 2006 documentary which shows the roles of American automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, and the US government in stopping production of electric cars in the US, specifically the General Motors EV1 of the 1990s. That turned out to be bad news, both for General Motors and American consumers, but it also opened up opportunities for electric car manufacturers abroad.

Optimal Energy, a Cape Town-based company, is trying to position itself as a leader in the field with its Joule all-electric vehicle, which was first unveiled two months ago at the 2008 Paris Motor Shop.

We visited Optimal Energy’s offices – scattered throughout an upscale shopping plaza – earlier this week to see a business presentation by CEO Kobus Meiring. He made a convincing case for the Joule, which was summed up nicely by fellow blogger Chris Morrison.

The car itself didn’t really do it for me – I am a much bigger fan of public transportation projects, like South Africa’s 2010 public transport plan, than any mere personal automobile. But what did fascinate me is how Meiring’s career evolution – from developing military helicopters to telescopes to electric cars – is representative of the evolution of South Africa’s engineering field. Now that South Africa is no longer ruled by a White nationalist government focused on strengthening its military, the country’s engineers are able to work on projects and start companies that make a positive social impact.

Going back to my question of trade versus aid, what is the social benefit of investing in a company like Optimal Energy? On the surface such an investment seems promising. Nearly 100 engineers are given jobs to design the cars. South African construction companies are employed to build manufacturing plants. And hundreds of semi-skilled workers are given decent paying jobs to manufacture the vehicles. This largely explains why Optimal Energy’s largest investor is the Department of Science and Technology of the South African government.

But a question by Graeme Addison, a veteran science journalist and one of the organizers of our tour, revealed an obstacle to South Africa’s multicultural integration of engineers and other professionals. In not so many words Addison essentially asked Meiring how many of his engineers are Black South Africans. We didn’t get a figure, but I would assume only a handful. The Black Economic Empowerment program of February 2007 set a quota system which ensures that a certain percentage of managerial and directorial positions are given to non-White South Africans. Addison later told me that this often means that young Black South Africans straight out of university are given managerial positions without ever going through the apprenticeship and training programs which lead to real skills development.

Meiring, however, said there has been a recent increase in the number of Black engineers graduating from universities and thinks that integration in the field of engineering is progressing. Still, I think that so-called philanthro-capitalist foundations could do a great thing by investing in Optimal Energy, but with the clause that they must hire and train more Black and female engineers. Such an investment could derive both a large social and economic return.

And Optimal Energy sure wouldn’t mind the extra capital. A post written last month by Domenick Yoney says the recent financial collapse has stalled the Joule’s launch and that Meiring and company will need to raise another $130 million before they are able to build an assembly plant and get their product on the road.

You can listen to an MP3 of Meiring’s entire presentation on the Brand South Africa Blog.

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