5 minutes with… Alexander Schey, project manager of the greatest electric car road trip ever

Alexander Schey from Imperial College London set up Racing Green Endurance and embarked on an epic electric-powered journey along the Pan-American Highway

By Will Dron on May 20, 2011 6:55 PM

On 17 November 2010 a group of engineering students arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina – the world’s southernmost city – having driven 16,155 miles, all the way down the Pan-American Highway. The trip from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, saw them pass through 14 countries over 70 days and cross some of the world’s most desolate regions.

This is not the sort of trip you undertake without a heavily modified offroader, something like a Land Rover or Toyota Land Cruiser. But our heroes here were not using an SUV, they were driving a low-slung two seater sportscar. Not only that, their Radical was specially converted to run on 100% electric power.

How did they charge it? Did they ever run out of juice or break down? And who was mad enough to come up with the idea in the first place? We spoke with project manager Alexander Schey to get the answers. Read on…

TCP: The Racing Green Endurance project was a massive undertaking, from design through to the epic Pan-American journey. Who came up with the idea, and what were you trying to prove?

AS: It was my idea. I was at university with the guys in the team and we were involved in a project where we were designing and building hydrogen electric go-karts. During those projects we realised that the public perception of electric vehicles is so skewed, so we wanted to come up with a project that would change people’s views.

Also, as a second objective, we wanted to inspire the next generation to take up technology and become engineers, scientists, doctors and so on. And that’s one of the reasons we chose such a striking looking vehicle; to help people get engaged and inspired by the project.

TCP: What sort of performance does the car have?

AS: At the time [it was built] it was the longest-range electric car in the world. There was another electric car that came out when we finished the trip – a prototype as well – which could go marginally further, but it caught fire, I believe. [It was an Audi A2 converted by DBM Energy in Germany, and was indeed lost to fire in January this year - ed]

Performance wise, what we decided to do is underrate the components… we had 400hp in the back and we limited it to 200hp, so it was capable of a lot more. But the figures were still pretty good: 0-60 mph was achieved in six seconds; top speed was 100mph.

TCP: An amazing journey. So which was your favourite country?

AS: I think unanimously our favourite country was Columbia, for the simple reason that the country has such a negative press, such a negative opinion in the western world – of drugs and people running around with guns and all sorts of things – just such a negative feeling about it, but when we went there it was the most opposite experience you could possibly imagine.

The people there are incredibly friendly, you don’t have an overwhelming sensation of danger. In fact, the country has improved so much from what we have heard. That journey that we did through Columbia – which was a high length part of the trip – you couldn’t have done that four or five years ago; you would have ended up being kidnapped or shot or something, especially in that kind of car.

But it has become so improved that we found driving through it – experiencing the people, the cultures, everything – was such an enjoyable experience. It also probably made a difference that we were in Columbia for the longest out of any other country.

TCP: Some areas must have been pretty remote – how did you charge the car?

AS: There were some very, very remote areas, particularly in Argentina, Alaska and Canada. But the car can do over 500km on a charge and we never found that there wasn’t some sort of source of electricity every 500 km.

The range was such that, even though we were going through very remote areas, it was enough to get to the next place. Perhaps the best it got was in Canada or Alaska where there is always a petrol station or house with electricity somewhere.

But in southern Argentina there is literally nothing for 300 km at a time. You will not see a building, you will not see a scrap of man-made activity except the road and the signs along the road… the rest is just wilderness as far as the eye can see. And that’s when you really appreciate the fact that the car can do a long range.

And that’s when you really realise that if electric cars are ever to take off, they have to have a significant range.

We have this idea in the UK that when you drive anywhere and you are going to see a town or village every ten kilometres or something, but outside Europe that is not the case, there are large distances of nothing and so they need that range.

TCP: Was everyone helpful?

AS: Very helpful. We had such a huge variety of places where we charged. To give you an example, one of my most memorable ones was when we actually charged off of the Panama Canal, which doubles as a hydro-electricity station. In Columbia we charged off a milk factory, we charged off many people’s homes, or off hotels. We charged directly off a wind turbine in Mexico, off an oil-powered station in Honduras, off a geothermal-powered station in Costa Rica, I mean literally the list goes on.

TCP: The very first charge was a zero emission charge, wasn’t it?

AS: Exactly, that was just 70 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. That was also run completely geo-thermal power. And you’re right, everywhere we went people were so receptive to the idea and really went out of their way to help us. And in the end we didn’t really need much – just a place to get access to electricity. And when we explained to people that all we needed was somewhere to plug in, and its not going to cost you much at all – maybe $5 and even cheaper in some cases – they didn’t have any aversions to it.

TCP: Did you have a portable charger?

AS: No, there was no generation. We did actually have a generator on the motorhome that we used in Alaska and Canada, but we wouldn’t charge off that. The ‘chargers’ we actually used just turn the AC (alternating current) from the mains to the DC (direct current) required for the batteries.

TCP: Did you ever run out of juice on the road?

AS: Never. Despite on some days doing over 600km in the remote places, we never ran out of juice. And, just as we had some people helping us plug in the car, we also had some unhelpful people unplugging the car, and even when that happened we knew how much charge was in the battery. We knew the car so well we really knew how far we could go, and we never run out of charge.

The closest we came was when we were in Mexico, driving into Mexico City and the night before somebody had turned off the electricity. So we knew we didn’t have enough to reach Mexico City, and we just stopped off at the petrol station, plugged in for two hours and then continued our journey and made it no problem.

TCP: The car has pretty low ground clearance. How did you cope on some of those incredibly rough roads?

AS: Well the car survived. We never had to lift the car over anything. Surprisingly, there were maybe three occasions – all of them in Ecuador – where the bumps were so big that the car actually grounded and seesawed in the middle. When it came to that we had a couple of options. The first was to reverse and try again at an angle to get around – sometimes that helped.

On one occasion, though, we literally forced the car over with a lot of scraping on the bottom, using enough speed to carry us forward until the back wheels hit on the other side. And it hurts the soul, I can promise you, when you hear that screeching when the car is touching. It’s really not nice.

But the car survived and we never really had any repairs to do on the car. The only thing we did have to do was replace the shock absorbers, which snapped every so often. So we had to replace four shock absorbers, but that’s it from a replaced component point of view.

TCP: The whole thing was filmed by the guys behind Ewan McGregor’s motorcycle road trip The Long Way Round. How did that come about?

AS: When we were building the car I gave Claudio (von Planta, director) a call. I’d met him a while before, and asked him if he wanted to come down and check out what we were doing. He said yes, came down and fell in love the project. He saw it as something that very much needed to be promoted.

So he came on board and started filming us while we were building, while we were testing, and then obviously on the trip as well. And by the time we got on the trip we had been around the camera so much that, I can speak for myself and I think the rest of the team that, I don’t think we felt any personal pressure by being in front of the camera so much.

There were a couple of occasions where Claudio’s interests conflicted with ours. Doing the trip is one thing but filming it is an entirely different thing. He needed to do a lot of set-up shots, get the camera in the right position, get the right sound and all sorts of things. And on a couple of occasions that caused a bit of tension.

But we were all in it for the same thing and nobody every had any hard feelings and any tensions were resolved very, very quickly. We were very good friends at the end of it and the result is that we worked together to get a really great documentary out of it.

TCP: There must have been some massive highs and lows along the way, what were the best moments and worst setbacks during the project?

AS: The best moments far outweigh the worst moments, and the best moment for me was just the non-stop smooth driving that you get with an electric car today; its just so smooth and quiet. And through the desert, the road there was fantastic, the scenery was incredible, the weather is fantastic, and you just drive and drive and drive and it feels so good.

And hitting the big milestones – cities and trip milestones, like getting to the bottom of North and Central America – looking at that on the map and saying, “I’ve done that in the last couple of months; what an amazing feeling”.

Some of the big landmarks were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge or the Panama Canal, and when we drove in the desert in Chile to the Paranal observatory, which is in the driest place on earth, and we went up a 2600m mountain. We were there at night when there was literally no human light for 100km around and you could actually see the Milky Way with your eyes.

As far as the worst moment on the trip, it was when part of the team crashed the car head-on into a wall – that was in Ecuador. The car was buggered, the front was completely decimated and destroyed, and we were in Ecuador, which is not the best country to get components shipped in in only a matter of a day or so. So, with no shipped in components, we completely rebuilt the front of that car, were driving again within 48 hours and within 6 days the car was completely back again as good as new, and we carried on our journey. From a really low point actually came a really high point as, from that moment onwards, apart from needing a couple of shock absorbers we didn’t have another single problem from there all the way down to Argentina.

TCP: Did you let the guy who crashed it drive again?!

AS: Yes! He was a bit scared to drive for a week or two after that but quickly regained his confidence at the wheel. But he is still being teased… and will always be teased!

TCP: Do you think your message about the viability of electric got through?

AS: Definitely. I wouldn’t say it was a far stretch to say we met with over 10,000 people on this trip, and presented to thousands of people. I mean, at one conference in Austin, Texas we presented to 5,000 people. So I mean we really personally met many, many people and the documentary went out to millions of people.

And judging by the feedback that we got and also just talking to people and seeing in their eyes them thinking, “Hold up… this is an electric car that for $5 can go as far as your car can go for $50 of petrol?” And them seeing that the car works and is not some sort of public relations stunt. I really felt that message got through, and people who never even thought about electric cars as a viable means of transportation, or maybe hadn’t even heard of them full stop – and that was the case in some places – they really could see the benefit.

In many places we went they have such big pollution problems directly from cars and polluting engines that they need electric cars more than anybody else. And they have an abundant supply of cheap hydro-electricity, which is clean as well. So for them the desire to have electric cars is stronger than in some other places.

TCP: You haven’t considered getting a Nissan LEAF or Mitsubishi i-MiEV?

AS: If I had the money then I’d certainly consider it, but if I had the money I’d go for a Tesla Roadster – I’d buy that thing today. But money is obviously, as always, the concern.

TCP: What is everyone from Racing Green Endurance up to now?

AS: Clemens [Lorf] and Andy [Hadland], they were in a PhD and job respectively. So Clemens has gone back to finish his PhD, Andy is doing very well climbing up in a very exciting energy-related start-up company.

For myself, Toby [Schulz] and Nik [Sauer], we’ve gone on to form a company and at the moment are haggling over contracts, and that looks like a very promising start-up that we are going to have.

And obviously promoting the project wherever we can. We recently had an exhibition at the science museum, the car will be at the start of the Gumball 3000 rally in a couple of weeks time, and the DVD’s are still being sold and getting out there – which we are all involved in. We’re doing the RAC Future Car Challenge in November.

So we are still doing lots of things, repairing the car, getting it back into nice looking condition – it still drives great but looks a bit bashed up. So the project still goes on even though we are all doing new and exciting things.

You can buy the DVD of the epic, electric Pan-American adventure from the Racing Green Endurance website: www.racinggreenendurance.com