Technological revolutions have seen Kenya play outlier often: coming sometimes first in uptake and innovation – mobile phones/ M-Pesa – and sometimes last. But where are we on electric cars? This last week, I have been driving a hybrid car. At the moment of pick-up, it blew me away. It was silent. I even kept trying over and over to restart it, not sure what I had done wrong.When I finally released the brake and it began moving, I was utterly thrown by this noiseless machine.
As it is, it’s not a plug-in. If I had had to negotiate ‘top-ups’ as well, the whole experience would have been more scary than I was ready for. However, some hybrids simply top up the battery internally, once they switch to fuel, seeing the electric function kick in at start up, and in slow traffic and towns.
It didn’t take me long to realise what a bonus that would be in Nairobi. Jams on Mombasa Road in a silent, non-polluting, non-petrol guzzling machine would be a way better experience, especially if everyone had one.
For Nairobi’s air quality is genuinely abysmal. Tests have shown the air so loaded with toxins and pollutants – despite our early adoption of unleaded fuel – that the air is feeding our spectacular surge in pneumonia, lung and heart diseases, and cancer.
Strangely, the one column I wrote about that produced a small cluster of reader comments declaring this nonsense. Which was weird. It wasn’t scientists disputing the air tests, or people who’d done their own testing, but a handful of readers suffering a powerful disbelief that our air could not conceivably be bad.
Yet I am pretty sure the air testing equipment does work in Kenya, and that the science on the human impact of those toxins isn’t over-ridden by Nairobi’s particular wonders.
However, beyond the potentially huge boon to the longevity of Nairobi residents, that hybrid car is more of a harbinger of things to come than a solution in its own right.
As soon as one drives a little faster, and certainly at the point of getting onto a highway, it kicks over to petrol consumption. Thus, overall, it gets though petrol slower, but not much slower than a conventional car.
Which makes city cars, and city congestion its real strength in current 2018 models. Yet that silent moment, the start-ups, and sometimes city switch overs, have heightened my interest in electric cars by about 600 per cent.
I had already been shocked on my visit to the UK last year by the battery top up stations at motorway service stations. Yet they still sit, this year as last, as a statement to a technology of the future, largely vacant, rather than heavily used and queued for: so I’m not sure now where the first generation of electric car owners are really topping up their new cars. Indeed, overall, the electric car revolution reminds me powerfully of the arrival of the PC personal computer.
I was a very early adopter back then, buying something called an Amstrad, which really was about the first personal computer sold on the UK market.
Yet, when I look back at the floppy discs everything was saved on and consider now an ordinary memory and internet enhanced laptop, those first PCs were little more than electric typewriters with a save-to-disc function, in truth.So I no longer doubt that cars will be going electric.
Fuelled cars seem certain to pass into history in coming years. There simply won’t be a reason to stay with petrol once the technology is improved, and the recharging infrastructure too.
But where Kenya leap frogged the West on mobile phones, because its underlying landline phone infrastructure was so poor, will electric cars come so easily, based, likewise, on private sector infrastructure set-up?
Or will the country’s position as a largely second-hand car market, mean it runs some extra years on the rest of the world’s sold-on petrol cars, being among the last to truly make the changeover?Overall, this revolution looks set to be slower our side than elsewhere. But electric cars will come.