Electric vehicles (EV) are becoming an everyday conversation. In celebration of Electric Vehicle day on 9th September, we sat down with an Electric Vehicles Engineer, Hampton Macharia. This EV enthusiast gave us great insights into this budding industry in Kenya.

1. What are the challenges engineers face in EV design with regard to cost durability, customer service etc?

The major factors affecting EV design are:

Weight: Increasing the range of the vehicle requires increase in the number of batteries in the car. This ultimately increases the general weight of a car which may not be beneficial to the general functioning of a car.

Charging time: while consumers would like their cars charged at a fast rate for convenience sake, charging lithium ion batteries at high speeds results in issues with heating and lifespan among others.
Other factors include battery life, this is of course dependent on battery development.

In regard to customer satisfaction, the major issues are range and anxiety on the consumer’s side. This is handled through either increasing the range of the vehicle or informing the customer that they really do not require that much range in their cars.

2. What will it take for EVs to surpass ICEs in the market?

This is dependent on conflation of different factors, some of them being legislation, lack of oil, energy independence. One of the most important issues for consumers is range and cost.

Once the cost for batteries and their durability improves, EV’s will then be competitive to ICE’s. Already companies like Tesla are making great strides in some competitive markets.

Some of these factors are country dependent for example, Kenya being a net importer of oil, our petroleum is expensive thus providing an opportunity for EV’s to compete with ICE’s cost wise sooner rather than later. Saudi Arabia however which is a net exporter of oil has cheap oil thus it will be significantly disadvantageous to integrate EV’s into their socioeconomic environment.

3. What is the role of the government in promoting EVs?

Firstly a lot of governments in Europe are offering subsidiaries for EVs that is the government pays a part of the price for any purchased EV’s .Kenya might not be there yet but there are certain strides it has made to promote EV’s one of the being offering tax reduction for EVs not too long ago.

Additionally it can encourage companies to assemble EVs locally by tax reductions as well as promote EV development through government institutions such as university, government innovation hubs ..etc Reduction of taxes for EV ecosystem such as charging stations is also paramount.

The government through certain arms and organisations can develop EV infrastructure itself e.g. KenGen has announced plans for development of EV charging infrastructure. This will eventually encourage the common mwananchi to buy and utilize this infrastructure.

Since the government is the largest purchaser of vehicles, can commit itself to buying EV’s, and their institutions, such as public transport companies in Nairobi and universities, can buy the cars.

In the future, introduction of carbon taxes can encourage widespread adoption of electric vehicles at an increased rate. This will reduce our carbon footprint of course.

4. Funding is a major issue when it comes to EV start-ups. How can they do well with minimal financial support?

Taking the story of Tesla for example, the company started with Model X and Model Y which we would consider expensive .The profits funded development and manufacturing of mass market Model 3 which was much friendlier to the pocket.

With any start-up, a good strategy would be to have a few early adopters that believe and invest in your dream, bugs and all included. Your vehicle or product will develop and improve further with the data fed back into your design and implementation process. This leads us to the next stage which is mass market.

Kiira Motors for example is a state enterprise in Uganda established to champion the development of the domestic automotive value chain for job and wealth creation. It has received huge government funding to build a factory. This brings in the role of government in supporting such initiatives through institutions and innovation hubs.

5. Are there any other EV battery technologies in consideration? If so, what are they?

Most battery development is happening within lithium ion thus you have Solid state batteries and Lithium ion phosphate batteries which are promising to increase range and reduce risk factors associated with EV’s, they will also be cheaper to manufacture.

The most promising technology outside Lithium batteries would be Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles, these generate electricity by using oxygen from the air and compressed hydrogen.However they have a combined efficiency of about half that of batteries, while using hydrogen from electrolysis. Hydrogen electrolysis has losses, and also compression and transport of the gas generates losses. The fuel cell efficiency is also about 60%. For EV’s, the losses are at the DC round trip efficiency, i.e. the ratio of the power you put in to the power you get out.In batteries the power conversion rate is 80% to 90%. The good thing about fuel cells is that they have a longer range and the car’s general weight is significantly less, hence this is important for long distance trucking.

It’s at the end of the day a continuous debate in the industry, each technology having its advantages and disadvantages.

6. What is the potential of EVs in Africa from an economic and social perspective?

I tend to think that EVs are easier to manufacture than ICE as they involve cabling, batteries and motors .Other than batteries, Kenya has been developing these systems for a long time. Therefore is an opportunity for us to make our own EV’s .

The EV industry being young allows us to establish grassroots at an early stage. It goes without saying that there are significant challenges in entering an industry that has been in development for the past hundred or so years since the development of the engine. Since we have been working on motors and cabling for various systems, It is possible to involve ourselves in the development of EV technology alongside countries like China and India. This allows us to leapfrog the technological vehicle development system from essentially nothing to EV’s.

Electric vehicles in Africa allows for energy independence from the international oil markets that affect us directly. Integration of EVs means less exposure to the dynamics of this market. Energy independence is important in geopolitics.

In Kenya ,there is an oversupply of electricity. Our peak demand is 70% of our installed capacity .All this power can be used by EV’s meaning cheaper transport means. The country will also become healthier. Nairobi is really polluted and a lot of hat pollution comes from vehicles.

In addition, we have 41 power plants coming into operation by the year 2025. The best way to utilize that power other than to industrialise is EV’s.

From a socioeconomic perspective, manufacturing our own vehicles has a potential to lift a number of people out of poverty .The EV infrastructure will bring in new jobs and new opportunities for the betterment of everyone. EV’s in the public transport system will be healthier and cheaper essentially benefiting Kenyans.

7. How do hybrid vehicles compare with EVs? Which is the better option, in your opinion?

There are several levels of hybrids:
Mild hybrids: meaning the electric motor cannot work independently. It has to be assisted at all times by the engine but the electric motor can provide instant extra torque or can soak up extra power from the engine when necessary.

Full hybrids like the Toyota Prius where the motor can work independently.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles which can be operated with the motor completely and you can plug it in to a charger. They have a range of 50 to 80km in fully electric then larger range on diesel or petrol.

Both full and mild hybrids depend on the fact that vehicles are most efficient when the engine is running at a certain constant speed. If more power is needed, instead of accelerating the engine, the extra power comes from the battery pack, and when less power is needed, the extra power can be used to charge a battery pack via the motor. In this instance, the motor acts as a generator.

There are places where hybrids are highly advantageous for example If you frequent areas with low energy access.

I however am not a fan of Plug-In. This is because they have two power trains, electric and petrol or diesel power train. Bringing them together is highly complex as you need to have separate control systems for the electric system and the petrol system as well as a joint control system, doing this becomes rather expensive and difficult.

8. Explain the conversion from an ICE vehicle to an EV. Briefly discuss its pros and cons, with respect to just purchasing a new EV.

Conversion involves removal of the engine and gear box which are then replaced by the electric system that is the motor, batteries, electronics for control purposes and a charging system. The 12 volt system, of the lead-acid battery, is left intact.

In terms of cons you do not get a native EV. In terms of pros it is good for the environment, also engines that have reached the end of their lives can just be replaced.

A larger-scale advantage is that we have a billion diesel and petrol vehicles in the world. It is thus more economical and eco-friendly to convert them to electric. This may even increase their lifespan. There is a large market for that.

Another advantage is cost savings on the amount of fuel you would have otherwise used.
All things considered, it is not a competition between converting systems and new EVs. Each option has a viable place in the industry.

My parting sentiments

It’s is a given that EVs will shape our future. It’s a fact that Kenya import 80% of its vehicles as used vehicles. The laws of this country should force our hands towards EVs adoption.

That said if we don’t wait to be forced, there is a great opportunity in EVs .From careers in design, manufacturing, servicing and infrastructure to further exploration and innovations in data science and immerging technologies. Companies and people that adopt EVs first will reap a benefit to a great extent in terms of reduction in cost and future proofing their company…

It would be great to see more EV’s on Kenyan roads.


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