Electric cars take on the planet’s toughest terrain in new Extreme E racing series

Nothing blows away the outdated image of electric vehicles as “glorified golf carts” better than experiencing electric performance on a racetrack. Formula E, the FIA-sanctioned electric racing series, has been a powerful ambassador for the EV revolution—and an exciting experience for participants and spectators—since its opening season in 2014. Now the team behind Formula E has gone off-road and off the chain to bring us a rowdier and more rough-and-tumble racing series. Extreme E features custom electric off-road SUVs tearing through some of the harshest and most vehicle-punishing terrain on the globe. Formula E showed that EVs can be fast. Extreme E aims to show that EVs can be tough.  

Above: Extreme E's X44; Drivers: Cristina Gutierrez (ESP) / Sebastien Loeb (FRA) (Source: Extreme E)

Sustainability is at the heart of Extreme E’s mission. The race sites have been chosen not only for their challenging physical features, but in order to highlight the environmental threats to each of the five unique ecosystems: desert, Arctic, ocean, rain forest and mountain glaciers. The carbon footprint is as small as practical: there are no spectators, and the cars and teams travel on a specially greened-up ship. Extreme E invests in local environmental projects at each site, and buys carbon offsets to compensate for what emissions it cannot avoid.

Equality is also a priority—each of the 9 racing teams consists of one male and one female driver, who take turns at the wheel of a single car.

Extreme E’s first race, the Desert X Prix, took place on April 3 and 4, on an 18 km course centered around three canyons in the vast desert surrounding Al-’Ula, Saudi Arabia. Rosberg X Racing duo Johan Kristoffersson and Molly Taylor took the checkered flag.

Spark Racing Technology, which developed all three generations of the Formula E race car, created a custom electric SUV, the Odyssey 21, for Extreme E. In a recent interview with Charged, Pierre Prunin, Spark’s Head of Motorsport Operations, explained that the Odyssey 21 is “similar in terms of electrical and software technology,” to the Formula E racer, but that all the hardware components, unsurprisingly, are “bigger and stronger.”

Spark designed the chassis, bodywork, suspension, drivetrain architecture, software and electronics. The battery packs were made by Williams Advanced Engineering, and a few other components such as motors, inverters and braking systems were made by undisclosed companies.

The Odyssey 21 has a niobium-reinforced steel alloy tubular frame, crash structure and roll cage. The exterior shell is made from sustainable natural flax fibers from a Swiss firm called Bcomp.

Each team can customize the bodywork of its car—for example, the Chip Ganassi Racing team created a car that features a unique grille, graphics and bodywork inspired by the GMC Hummer EV—but all the other parts are standardized.

There are two motors, each with 200 kW (225 hp) of power. Total torque is 450 Nm. The car goes from 0-62 mph in 4.5 seconds, and can handle gradients of up to 130 percent.

Unlike the Formula E racer, the Odyssey has no regenerative braking. “It is not an energy race, and braking isn’t huge due to poor grip in most of the conditions we’ll encounter, hence there’s very little energy to recover compared to Formula E,” Pierre Prunin told Charged.

The battery pack, developed and built by Williams Advanced Engineering, is enclosed in a rugged enclosure of carbon fiber composite, which weighs less than 400 kg. The pack consists of 3,600 cells, runs at 800 volts, and has a capacity of 54 kWh (40 kWh usable).

Above: A look at Extreme E's all-electric racing in some of the most remote corners of the planet (YouTube: Extreme E)

Considering that the Extreme E races will take place in extreme temperatures, which are known to be hard on EV batteries, we were surprised to learn that the battery packs don’t use any active cooling while running. “This avoids the use of expensive and not environmentally friendly dielectric fluids, and also avoids potential leaks,” said Mr. Prunin. “We cool down the batteries only while charging or before the race by blowing air into them. The front and rear motors are traditionally cooled with water.”

If you thought installing Level 2 charging in your detached garage was a hassle, consider what Extreme E has to go through to power its races. The electric rally racing series is staging events in some of the harshest, most remote locations on Earth. The first two races took place in the Saudi Arabian desert and on the beaches of Senegal, and the next will be on a glacier in Greenland. None of these locales have access to an electrical grid—or any other facilities.

The usual way to provide electricity for an event at a remote location is by means of a diesel generator—but that wouldn’t be an option for Extreme E, which has sustainability at the core of its mission. The series is working with several innovative and environmentally conscious suppliers to deliver the electricity needed while keeping its carbon footprint as low as possible.

London-based Zenobē is providing a system based on second-life batteries to power Extreme E’s broadcasting, race and event control, and media center.

“We support companies all over the world in the EV sector, offering full turnkey solutions, which include building, financing and operation of charging infrastructure,” said Steven Meersman, Zenobē’s co-founder and Director. “Extreme E presented a unique opportunity for us. We presented the idea of powering the paddock using repurposed batteries and it made perfect sense.”

“A second-life battery is one that has served its intended life in an electric vehicle and has been repurposed or reused in a new application,” Meersman explains. “Batteries are removed from EVs when they are no longer suitable for powering the vehicle, but they still have life left for further usage.”

UK-based temporary power specialist Power Logistics provided four solar-powered battery energy storage systems. One powers Extreme E’s Command Centre, and the other three support the TV communication nodes that transmit signals from around the racecourse so the TV broadcast can be produced remotely.

The power to charge the Odyssey 21 racing cars comes from a separate system, provided by AFC Energy. AFC’s system includes hydrogen fuel cells in addition to stationary battery storage. Iain Thomson, AFC’s Head of Communications and Stakeholder Management, explained to Charged that the charging system consists of four main components, each housed in shipping containers. “You’ve got the fuel production—the green hydrogen. Then you’ve got the alkaline fuel cell unit, a battery storage unit, and then the charger itself.”

“In the days leading up to each of the race weekends, hydrogen is going to be generated from a combination of solar arrays powering electrolyzers,” said Thomson. “That hydrogen is then stored in cylinders, ready for use over the weekend. The fuel cell draws from that green hydrogen to create power, which is then fed into the battery storage unit. And the vehicle charger is linked to that battery storage unit, so when you see one of the Odyssey 21 vehicles charging on an Extreme E race weekend, it’s going to be drawing on power from that battery storage unit.”

“This is the first time that motorsport has used this type of technology to charge vehicles,” says Thomson. “You have Formula E and then Extreme E, so the technology has been developed for motorsport. We’d like to see this technology being deployed for other sports, to replace diesel generators, because that’s the principle aim of our technology at this stage—to do a like-for-like replacement of diesel technology so people can reduce their carbon emissions.”


This is a condensed and updated version of an article that originally appeared in Charged. Author: Charles Morris.