BMW SA MD Tim Abbott. File Picture: REUTERS/JAS LEHAL
BMW SA MD Tim Abbott. File Picture: REUTERS/JAS LEHAL

BMW SA is looking for corporate partners for a pilot scheme to use solar-powered parking bays to recharge electric cars, MD Tim Abbott said Monday. The motor company, one of only two, with Nissan, to sell electric cars in South Africa, intends the project to be running by the end of this year.

Mr Abbott said the motor industry and government had to take bold steps to encourage South African consumers to buy electric cars.

Global BMW chairman Harald Kruger said this week that, in the long term, "there is no alternative to e-mobility" because of the need for clean, sustainable transport. All the world’s major motor companies are pursuing various versions of electric power.

Mr Abbott, however, said that governments had to play their part. In countries where sales of electric vehicles were thriving, they were supported by tax incentives, the widespread availability of car-recharging stations, and practical benefits like access to city bus lanes during rush-hour.

In South Africa, by contrast, import duties on electric cars were higher than those for large, petrol-guzzling 4x4s. In fact, they were classified in the same high-duty bracket as golf carts. Mr Abbott said he and Nissan SA MD Mike Whitfield had tried to persuade government, for example, to admit electric cars duty-free for a limited period to "kickstart" public interest.

Government officials, including Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, have publicly stated their support for the principle of electric vehicles but have not yet translated this into action. "They have not given us a reason why there should not be (action)," Mr Abbott said.

He was speaking in Munich, Germany, after attending a ceremony to mark the centenary of BMW. The company, which builds the BMW, Rolls-Royce and Mini car brands, as well as BMW motorcycles, began life on March 7th 1916 as a manufacturer of aircraft engines.

At the ceremony, Mr Kruger said that although petrol and diesel-powered vehicles would remain important for the foreseeable future, the eventual need for electric power would dominate.

In SA, where the motor industry sells over 500,000 new vehicles annually, BMW SA and Nissan SA combined sold fewer than 500 electric cars in 2015. Mr Abbott admitted that "range anxiety"— consumers’ fear that they would be stranded if their car ran out of power between recharges — was a major factor.

But he said that electric cars’ driving range was increasing all the time; later this year, BMW SA would introduce a car capable of travelling more than 300km between recharges.

He said solar power was an important part of the future. BMW’s pilot project involves inserting solar panels into covered outdoor parking areas, and using the stored energy for car recharging points. His company planned two pilot schemes in Gauteng and one each in Durban and Cape Town.

‘There is so much sun in SA and yet we don’t harness it," said Mr Abbott. "Solar power is the way to go in this country."

He confirmed, meanwhile, that BMW SA had begun spending the R6bn invested by its German parent to build the next-generation X3 sports utility vehicle at the company’s Rosslyn assembly plant, outside Pretoria. It is the single biggest ever investment in the SA motor industry.

He said the company had bought land adjacent to the factory, to expand operations.

Rosslyn, which currently produces the 3-Series sedan, mainly for export, is expected to start building the X3 from 2019. Long-term, one of its main markets will be Sub-Saharan Africa and Mr Abbott has just been given responsibility for that region as well as SA.

"We were the only major manufacturer in SA that did not have responsibility for Sub-Sahara so it made sense to follow suit," he said.

"Öur first task is to stabilise relations with current importers in those countries and see what their markets want. We anticipate we will sell more vehicles but the region will be very small to begin with. It won’t be a large percentage of business but it is too early to quantify. X3 is the most relevant vehicle for those markets."