Hybrid Hummers make tracks to the South Pole

Imagine turning the much-maligned Hummer, a symbol of gas-guzzling gluttony, into the paragon of eco-friendly vehicles. Sounds about as plausible as driving one to the South Pole, right?

We want a guy who drives a light pickup truck in Texas to stop and think, ‘Hey, maybe it’s time to get a hybrid or electric vehicle in the driveway'.

It is time to recalibrate perceptions, thanks to Drive Around the World (DATW), a non-profit organisation that plans to drive two electric-diesel hybrid Hummers some 1,200 miles to the South Pole and back in December. The campaign’s goals: reach the southern tip of the earth without using a single drop of fossil fuel, and not die in the process.

“We want a guy who drives a light pickup truck in Texas to stop and think, ‘Hey, maybe it’s time to get a hybrid or electric vehicle in the driveway,’” says Nick Baggarly. A former Silicon Valley software engineer, Baggarly co-founded the organisation with colleague Todd Borgie to raise awareness for humanitarian issues.

As a practical matter, DAW chose Hummers for their heavy-duty frames, high ground clearance and spacious interiors. But the team also relished the delicious irony of using the vehicles – maligned in their dawn-of-millennium heyday for their profligate thirst – to champion a global conversion to hybrid vehicles.

“We want to usher in a new age of zero- or low-emissions vehicles,” Baggardly  says. “And we thought a great way to do that is take a polarising symbol like the Hummer and pull out the old technology, then install new emissions-free technology.”

The two heavily insulated Polar Traverse Vehicles, or PTVs, respectively based on 1996 and 1998 civilian Hummer H1 models, have surrendered none of their chest-thumping braggadocio, evoking steroidal Lego toys. Their imposing appearance was further augmented by removing the original roofs and replacing them with hardtops from military HMMWV (Humvee) ambulances, purchased via eBay. That boosted precious interior cargo space, Baggarly notes.

Sets of triangle-shaped, 18in-wide tracks further contribute to the monster-truck effect. The tracks help the vehicles “float” on the snow surface by dispersing their 11,000lb (4,990kg) curb weights over a larger surface area. “We’ve got to stay below 4lbs per square inch or the vehicles will sink into the snow,” Baggarly says. They also will help the vehicles negotiate the brutal polar terrain, which includes vast stretches of daunting “frozen waves” called sastrugi. For added strength, the axles, differentials and geared hubs came from armoured military Humvees.

To convert these beasts into hybrids, the designers opted for a diesel/electric series EV architecture, centred on a Steyr six-cylinder turbodiesel engine that runs on an aviation biofuel called synthetic paraffin kerosene. Produced from a blend of inedible oils, its freezing point is -65°F (-54°C). The biofuel is stored in two custom-made, 30-gallon fuel tanks.

The engine, which produces 160kW or 218 horsepower, generates electricity by spinning an electric motor connected to its flywheel by a torsional coupler. The resulting electricity is stored in two battery packs. “It essentially works like a diesel electric locomotive,” Baggarly notes. Each battery pack holds four 97v lithium-superpolymer batteries for a total of 388v and stored capacity of 24kWh – roughly equivalent to the battery capacity of a Nissan Leaf hatchback.

The batteries, which stay toasty inside a heated and insulated box, drive two 150kW electric motors, each  coupled to a differential front and rear, thereby producing all-wheel drive. The vehicles’ all-electric range is 32 miles; the range in hybrid mode is still being determined. Maximum speed? About 45mph (72km/h).

To make more room for the 5ft-long battery box, the DAW team – comprised of volunteers from more than three dozen companies that provided funding and in-kind donations to the project – cleverly flipped the front and rear differentials, then rotated them 180 degrees so they both pointed outboard. “This allowed us to outboard-mount the electric traction motors, which freed up valuable space for the largest battery box possible,” Baggarly explains. “That, in turn, allowed more batteries and more all-electric range.”

Redundant components were a priority because the extreme environment increases the risk of breakdowns. As such, the Hummers can function with just one electric motor and drive axle, and one battery pack. Redundancy also explains why the 6-10-day trip includes two Hummers, Baggarly says. “If needed, we can tether them together and run both of them from just one vehicle’s batteries,” he notes.

Motorised vehicles have already reached the South Pole. In fact, Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man recognised to have summited Mt Everest, led a team in 1958 on the first motorised trip to the South Pole, for which specially outfitted Ferguson TE20 tractors were utilised. And in 2014, a Dutch adventurer, Manon Ossevoort, became the first woman to travel to the South Pole by tractor, an MF 5610 model made by Massey Ferguson.

A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the New York-based Explorers Club, Baggarly is no stranger to epic adventures himself. In 1999, he led the Latitude Expedition, a 16,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe in 1960s-era Land Rovers. In 2005, he quarterbacked the Longitude Expedition, a 44,000-mile global trek to bring attention to and raise funds for research of Parkinson’s disease.

So in that context, where does the Zero South trek rank on the derring-do meter? “Yes, it’s crazy,” Baggarly concedes. “But it’s not that out there if it results in broad societal changes. It would be crazy to not undertake projects like Zero South.

“In the end, the first hybrid vehicles to ever drive to the South Pole will be Hummers, and they’ll get there with zero fossils fuels. And I think that’s very cool.”

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