The South African car that could have beaten Tesla

South Africa was close to being one of the first countries to mass-produce passenger electric vehicles (EVs), but unrealistically ambitious sales targets and another costly failed government-funded scientific project saw Tesla and established carmakers take the lead in the industry.

The car that could have put South Africa at the forefront of EV development was the Joule, a four-door multi-purpose vehicle developed by Optimal Energy.

Co-founded by Kobus Meiring, Mike Lomberg, Jian Swiegers, and Gerhard Swart in 2005, Optimal Energy came about as the world was figuring out that the continued use of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles would not be environmentally sustainable in the long run.

The founders also saw e-mobility as a way to help counteract rising fuel prices and taxes.

The first prototype of the Joule was hand-built in three years and showcased at the Paris Motor Show in October 2008, to widespread praise. It would again be featured at the Geneva Motor Show in 2010.

At the time, the only major car manufacturer developing a four-door EV for potential mass adoption was Nissan, which was working on the Leaf.

Tesla began production of its first EV — the two-door Roadster sports car — that same year. However, it would take another four years to mass produce its first four-door cars.

Motoring industry veteran and former Joule engineer Nicol Louw recently spoke to Cars.co.za’s Ciro De Siena to explain a bit more about the technical details of the car and why it failed.

Joule EV front
Joule EV rear

Nicol estimated there were around 100 people working for the company at one point, including 40-50 engineers.

Louw said the staff complement was made up of an incredibly talented mix of people from different backgrounds.

Some of them were involved in the development of Denel’s Rooivalk attack helicopter and the South African Large Telescope.

The sleek design of the prototype Joule was thanks to South African-born Keith Helfet, best known for his works on the Jaguar XJ220 and F-type concept.

But it was also impressive under the hood, with specifications ahead of its time for a general-use EV.

The Joule prototype was powered by a single motor on the front axle, providing 70kW/250Nm.

It could accelerate from 0-60km/h in about five seconds and 0-100km/h in 12-14 seconds., and had a top speed of 135km/h.

This made it more than suitable for general commutes, but it was also capable of longer distance travelling.

The Optimal Energy team had envisioned the production model would be able to achieve about 300km of range on a single charge of its 36kWh lithium-ion battery, but a more realistic range achieved by the prototype was about 220km.

Even so, this was substantially better than the original Leaf’s claimed range of 117-172km, which realistically was closer to about 80km.

The four Joule prototypes built by Optimal Energy. Credit: Gerhard Swart

While the Leaf had a smaller 24kWh battery, the Joule’s energy efficiency was literally miles ahead — at 6.1km/kWh compared to 3.3km/kWh.

That works out to about 16.7kW/100km, better than many modern EVs.

Key to this was the Joule’s light weight of 1.2 tonnes, substantially less than the roughly 2 tonnes of the Leaf.

The battery’s charging speed via a regular socket was also sufficient to refill it overnight.

In addition, the Joule also supported one-pedal driving, which automatically slows the car down based on how high the driver lifts their foot off the pedal. This feature would only come to the Leaf in 2018.

The interior of the Joule was also ultra-modern, with a fully digital instrument cluster , touch display infotainment system, and a small gear shifter similar to what one would find in a current-day EV.

Joule interior

Joule’s marketing and sales model was also vastly different from other carmakers.

The idea was to promote and sell the cars from cutting-edge stores in malls and have them delivered to people’s homes.

Louw explained the initial plan was to make about 10-20 cars a year and have the government buy them to be driven by officials.

The “slow progression strategy” would work to slowly garner support for the locally-made model and build interest in the product over time.

However, Joule’s blockbuster reception at the Paris Motor Show in 2008 uprooted that plan and convinced the company that there was enough interest to make 50,000 cars per year.

The development already had an estimated cost of around R5 million for every one of the four completed prototypes, while the initial low-volume production models would have cost around R1 million to make.

Upscaling to 50,000 cars annually would require substantially more money than the initial R15 million provided by the government and the subsequent R40-R50 million invested in the company annually.

Optimal Energy required roughly R9 billion in funding to commercialise the Joule at a level where it could charge around R300,000 per car, or R245,000 when the battery pack is only leased to the driver.

As a point of reference, Tesla received funding in the form of a $465 million preferential loan from the US Department of Energy in 2010. That was worth roughly R8.8 billion based on the dollar-to-rand exchange rate in that year.

Optimal Energy aimed to start production of the Joule towards the end of 2012.

A resounding “no” from government

However, government was not convinced that the project would be a success and was unwilling to provide the billions needed for mass production.

“They basically said if this was a commercially viable project, Optimal Energy should be able to get funding for it from elsewhere,” Louw explained.

Louw said another major technology project that was cancelled — Eskom’s pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) research — had already cost the government about R6 billion without a useable project.

“I think the government just couldn’t stomach another loss like this,” Louw said.

Optimal Energy had subsequently attempted to get several original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to invest — including Jaguar Land Rover and Tata.

As funding began to slowly dry up, engineers were left to work on small projects to keep them busy, but without money, there was little to be excited about.

Optimal Energy shut down in 2012, two years after the Nissan Leaf’s public release and the same year in which Tesla started production of its first four-door car — the Model S. The more affordable Model 3 would only debut in 2017.

Both launched at substantially more expensive prices than the Joule’s targeted price.

Elon Musk, chairman and chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc., left, looks on as the Tesla Model S electric car is unveiled at the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) factory in Hawthorne, California, U.S., on Thursday, March 26, 2009. Photographer: Armando Arorizo/Bloomberg News

Louw said the jump to 50,000 cars per year was simply too ambitious for Joule when considering the overall demand for EVs.

The original “crawl-walk-run” strategy planned for the Joule would turn into “run-fall-crawl”.

Nissan only sold around 22,000 Leafs across the world in 2011, the first year in which the car was generally available.

“Looking back, it is always easier to criticise. Back then, it looked like we were guns blazing.” Louw said.

“If we stuck to the small number of vehicles, I think that it could have worked with a small hand-built plant.”

Louw said he believed the four prototypes were currently at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and used for research projects.

The full Cars.co.za video podcast with Nicol Louw’s insights about the Joule’s development and failure is embedded below.

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The South African car that could have beaten Tesla