The Joule was pure South African innovation – an electric car that could drive for 300 kilometres before needing a recharge. But it might have been an idea before its time.
In 2009, the year of the inaugural Nelson Mandela Day, the year Jacob Zuma was elected president of South Africa, and the year the country hosted the FIFA Confederations Cup, the Industrial Development Corporation approved its second contribution of R20-million to Optimal Energy.
The company was the manufacturer of South Africa's very own electric vehicle, the Joule. It may no longer be in existence, but its story is one of innovation and ambition.
Optimal Energy was founded in 2005 with the intention of building the country's first electric car. Rising fuel prices, country taxes and the need for a sustainable internal combustion vehicle were some of the reasons the company embarked on the project that would produce the Joule. It was also seen as a launch pad for South Africa's own auto manufacturing industry.
There was initially strong backing from the government for the company, with the Department of Science and Technology's Innovation Fund and the IDC making combined investments of about R300-million, and holding 30% and 50% of the company, respectively.
With these funds, Optimal Energy was able to unveil a prototype to the general public at the Paris Motor Show on 2 October 2008 and at the Geneva Motor Show in 2010. It attracted interest from more than 130 distributors worldwide. Prototype vehicles drove around Cape Town when the company tested the car. It had a maximum speed of 130km/h, with battery power that could last 300 kilometres, a five-seater capacity and seven hours' charging time for its lithium-ion battery pack. The car was designed in accordance with the European Union's stringent safety standards.
The company intended to build a number of prototypes and set up an assembly plant that would be able to commercially produce up to 4 000 cars a year. But to get the car on the road, it needed R9-billion. Funding proved difficult to secure and, as a result, Optimal Energy decided to shelve the Joule in 2012. In April of that year, it shifted its focus to the production of electric city buses. These were meant to be the answer to the government's upgrading of bus rapid transport systems.
Some of the technology from the Joule was to be applied to the buses, cutting down on time and costs. However, in an IT Web article published in June 2012, Optimal Energy's director of sales and marketing, Diana Blake, said the company could not secure the cash required to go ahead with bus production as its biggest backers, the IDC and the Department of Science and Technology, decided to stop funding.
With sales of electric vehicles slow worldwide, the two government bodies decided that the venture would not be financially viable and that it was time to shut down the company. Just two months after announcing that it would produce electric buses, Optimal Energy closed down.
This decision was made despite the manufacturer stating that it had secured its first order for 10 electric buses and 100 distributors worldwide that indicated they would include the Joule in their sales portfolios. Blake told IT Web that the company had presented the country with the perfect opportunity to start a home-grown automotive industry but it was "unable to commercialise a product that we as South Africans have developed".