Since our last adventure most of our time has been spent trying to save the planet and the eco-systems we so dearly love and rely on. As every day passes the severity of the climate emergency we are in becomes more and more apparent. We dream of visiting the Amazon rainforest, but we fear that by the time we get there it might be gone!
Every action has a carbon cost attached to it, which is making decisions very hard to make. Should we even continue our trip? Will we feel huge guilt by doing something so selfish when we should be fighting for the planet? How will we get to South America? Do we need to stop using Bee-bee because she runs on diesel? Is it feasible to use an electric 4x4 to overland the world?
In this blog I’m going to focus on that last question. Is it feasible to use an electric vehicle to overland the world?
The simple answer is yes. In 2017, our friends, Magdalena and Benedikt were the first to circle the Caspian Sea in an electric vehicle (Tesla Model S), from Switzerland to Central Asia and back via the Baltic countries. The “official” charging points finished in Croatia, forcing Magdalena and Benedikt to get “creative” adding a new dimension to an already tough overland trip. I had the pleasure of designing the vehicle graphics and interviewing them on The Overlanding Podcast.
On the 7th of April 2019, The Plug Me In project finally reached Sydney from the UK after travelling for 1,119 days through 34 countries, covering 95,000km becoming the longest journey in an Electric Vehicle to date.
So… It is possible, but...
Is it greener to replace Bee-bee with an electric alternative?
To calculate the carbon footprint of any vehicle is incredibly complex. The processes involved in getting raw minerals from the ground and made into a showroom ready vehicle are multifaceted and include many separate industries. Components have to be produced and often transported and then assembled. Every stage of the process requires energy and produces carbon, including the production of buildings and infrastructure (robots, phones, desks, etc).
Once the vehicle has been built, the way it is used, how old it is and how well it has been maintained are all wildly erratic variables that affect the amount of carbon it produces.
Luckily someone else has done most of the hard work for me. In his book “How Bad Are Bananas” – Mike Berners-Lee concludes that most new vehicles have a carbon footprint that equates to a monetary value. Berners-Lee suggests that a new vehicle will have a 720kg per £1000 that you spend on it. Unfortunately our vehicle isn’t new. Bee-bee is 26 years old and has a 3-Litre Turbo Diesel engine that has been well maintained.
Typically, embodied emissions produced in the production of new cars equal the exhaust pipe emissions over the entire lifetime of the vehicle. Bee-bee is older than average.
Berners-Lee deduces - “Generally speaking, it makes sense to keep your old car for as long as it is reliable, unless you are doing high mileage or the fuel consumption is ridiculously poor.” Essentially the longer you keep your vehicle the more the embodied emissions reduce per mile over time.
On top of the Carbon produced by burning the fuel there is the carbon cost of getting the fuel out the ground, refining it and then shipping it around the world.
Diesel engines are typically about 30% more efficient at turning fuel energy into vehicle movement. Unfortunately for us, each litre of Diesel has a slightly higher footprint (13 per cent) than petrol, but it produces a proportionately higher energy to compensate. Typically petrol is a cleaner option. Sadly diesel engines produce higher levels of microscopic particulates and nitrogen oxides and contribute massively to reductions in air quality that effect humans. These ultrafine particulates can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing irritation and can potentially trigger asthma attacks and cancer.
According to Berners-Lee “Overall, it is hard to say which fuel wins as the environmental vehicle fuel”. What we do know is that both petrol and diesel are pretty terrible for the planet, with diesel being worse for humans.
How does that compare with an electric vehicle?
If the production of the vehicle produces about 50% of the total carbon footprint with exhaust pipe emissions making up the other half, does that mean that 50% of the total carbon footprint of an electrical vehicle is tied up in the production too? No, is the simply answer.
Electric cars use lithium-ion batteries. The extraction of the exotic materials (lithium, cobalt, magnesium and nickel) used to produce those batteries creates hotspots in the vehicle manufacturing process. In a head-to-head comparison, electric vehicle production generates about 97% more carbon than a traditional combustion engine, with about 43% (the hotspot) of that being the battery. As technology advances these figures should reduce.
Electric vehicles are charged by coal, gas and nuclear power stations, as well as some renewable sources, all of which have an associated carbon footprint. So that raises the question – how much of a carbon saving does an electric vehicle actually give you?
Well thankfully, again, someone else has done the hard work for me. Volkswagen (who can definitely be trusted when it comes to telling the truth regarding emissions) carried out a like-for-like cradle to grave comparison between a pure electric e-Golf and a diesel-powered Golf TDI.
Volkswagen concluded that “even in countries that are intensely reliant on coal-fired electricity, like China, a battery electric model will always pollute less CO2 than one with an internal combustion engine”.
Even with the additional carbon produced during the production of the battery the typical saving is about 15%. This would be greatly increased if the electricity used for charging was sourced from renewables.
That figure came as quite a surprise to me. I was expecting it to be a much higher saving.
It is pretty much impossible to come to a definitive conclusion as to the carbon saving figure we would make by switching to an electric vehicle – we simply can’t compare like for like. It would be fair to say though that we wouldn’t be adding more carbon by switching, especially if that vehicle was second-hand.
You only have to have a quick glance at the Electric Vehicle World Sales Database to realise the rate at which the sector is growing.
As a result of the expanding electric vehicle market (and popularity of handheld devices), the demand for lithium is increasing exponentially. Between 2016 and 2018 Lithium doubled in price.
Ironically, as the world clambers to replace fossil fuels with clean energy in an effort to clean up the planet, the consequences of extracting that much lithium is becoming a major issue in its own right. Toxic chemical leaks from Lithium mines have wreaked havoc with ecosystems and it’s predicting that, by 2050, the demand for the exotic metals essential for lithium-ion batteries may be in short supply. The lithium extraction process uses huge amounts of water, in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65% of the region’s water.
Lithium is not the only problematic metal used in producing batteries. Cobalt, unlike most metals, is classified as a toxic carcinogen and has been linked to cancer. It’s found in huge quantities across the whole of the Democratic Republic of Congo and central Africa and in recent years the price has quadrupled. These factors have resulted in unauthorised mines cashing in on the demand, resulting in unsafe and unethical methods of extraction, often using child labour, without the appropriate health and safety equipment and procedures.
The final issue with lithium-ion batteries is what to do with them once they reach the end of their lifespan. They are incredibly difficult to recycle.
Ironically when researching this blog post I discovered two companies, Voltra and Tembo, that make an electric 70 series Landcruiser… wait for it… to be used in mines that excavate coal. It is common knowledge that the world would be a much better place if fossil fuels were left in the ground. Where’s Alanis Morissette when you need her!?
“Voltra provides underground mining fleets with the durability and toughness of the original 79 series Land cruiser, but with zero emissions, significantly reducing a mine’s carbon footprint”.
Being an environmentally conscious overlander is hard work. Making the correct decisions to limit your own impact on the world is a minefield of complicated sums and moral dilemmas.
Is there even a suitable vehicle that could replace Bee-bee?
The market for off-road electric vehicles is currently slim. Telsa announced the CyberTruck last year. One part DeLorean, one part stealth bomber, it’s not the most attractive of vehicles and where would we put the rooftent? Elon Musk claims it’ll have a +500 Mile range, he also claimed it was bulletproof. At it’s big reveal, Telsa’s head of design, Franz vol Holzhausesn threw a metal ball at the windows to demonstrate how tough it was, embarrassingly the glass broke. With a price tag of +$60,000 for the all wheel drive tri-motor version and a release date of 2022 it’s highly unlikely to happen for us!
The most likely contender to populate the electric overland market is the Rivian R1. With a +400 mile range and some smart design Rivian are aiming for a market they understand. The Rivian R1 will be available as a pick-up and 7 seater station-wagon, has a wading depth of nearly a metre, up to 750hp, advanced traction control, a low centre of gravity and an incredible 0-60 time of 3 seconds. With independent motors operating each wheel it can even perform 360 degree “tank turns”. Again, with a price tag of +$60,000 and a pre-order waiting list I think we can cross this one off our list.
Some companies offer conversions for existing 4x4’s. For the traditionalist, Plower in Holland can build you an electric Land Rover Defender. In Germany Kreisel can build you a fully electric G-Class.
As all these vehicles are well out of our price range we find ourselves asking the question again - Is there a suitable vehicle, which could replace Bee-bee and appease our demand to see the world with as little impact on the planet as possible?
Yes… a bicycle.
Most adventurous overlanders are typically drawn to the lesser-travelled, edgy countries. Travelling by 4x4 allows you to access some of the most beautiful, remote and sometimes inhospitable areas that most tourists generally don’t get to see.
Travelling in a self-reliant way in a 4x4 does however mean you cannot travel light; typically your vehicle is your home and this includes carrying everything from tools and laptops to the kitchen sink.
In most foreign countries a big muddy 4x4 with strange number plates, fully loaded with every conceivable extra is going to draw quite a bit of attention. As a result you, your vehicle and its contents can become a desirable target for criminals.
After we’d purchased Bee-bee in 2010, one astute bicycle traveller sensibly told me “the less you take with you the less you have to lose”.
These wise words are more pertinent having fallen victim to one of overlandings worst nightmares… robbery!
Robbed In Tehran
Way back in 2015, we were robbed whilst in Iran. The thieves smashed the drivers side window and indiscriminately took 6 storage boxes containing clothing, car parts, tools, medical kit, camping equipment and personal items. Sadly, this included the box that contained Emma’s travel diaries, all our used maps and books plus every sentimental little souvenir and gift we’d acquired en-route.
The financial loss was devastating but the inconvenience and time wasted was really problematic.
What We Did Right
Thankfully cameras, laptops, phones, hard drives, credit cards, money and passports were all with us in the apartment where we were sleeping.
Both Emma and I carry a micro SD card on us at all times in a hidden pocket in our ‘Adventure belts’, this memory card contains digital copies of all our important documents including the vehicle registration, passports, carnet, visas, medical records and prescription details. We have also emailed ourselves and a reliable family member a copy of this digital folder that can then be viewed using any device connected to the internet. Had we lost the entire car we would have still had access to our vital documents, this would have certainly sped things up at the police station and embassy.
Photos are simply irreplaceable; the basic rule to follow here is - don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. We always make sure we have multiple copies of all laptop content, including photographs of diary pages (fortunately). One copy is hidden deep inside the car and certainly isn’t locatable in a ten minute break-in. This solution is still not great if someone takes the entire vehicle. To resolve this potential problem we also back up our files and photographs frequently to the ‘Cloud’, this is painfully slow in most countries due to internet speeds and is not really appropriate for larger files like film footage. Backing up to SD or Micro SD cards and posting home is also a fairly secure alternative, if somewhat costly, the drawbacks with this are that many postal systems are fairly unreliable in other parts of the world.
Being married to a compulsive list maker has its benefits; Emma had made a full inventory of every item in the car and in which box it was placed, neatly organised into a deftly formatted spread-sheet stored on our micro SD cards. This simple procedure made identifying what had been taken a fairly quick process. This list was then swiftly given to the police. In hindsight it would have been beneficial to have a photograph of every item we carry as the police requested information regarding some of the more unusual or easily recognisable items that were taken.
All the rear windows of our car are completely blacked out using thick self-adhesive black vinyl, this does two things, it keeps inquisitive eyes out and also makes the glass a little harder to smash. Most thieves are opportunistic, if items are out of sight this is a great first step to securing your vehicle.
All our external accessories like jerry-cans and the Hi-lift jack are all secured with heavy-duty cables and waterproof padlocks. Our vehicle is fitted with an immobiliser, I would also recommend installing another hidden battery isolator switch to completely kill all electrics to the vehicle- this would also be handy when working on the car.
As for personal protection, we carry very little. In the tent at night we opt for WD-40 (although it’s not mentioned as one of the 2000+ uses on it’s website), a screeching rape alarm and a fairly hefty Maglite. Being lovers not fighters, we took a few self-defence classes before we left on our trip. Some overlanders carry pepper spray, but this can be problematic crossing borders in some countries.
What We Have Learnt
There are many things you can do to protect yourself, your possessions and your vehicle. Avoiding putting yourself in a risky situation is always the first step, followed by security should you be robbed. Having simple rules, being aware of your environment and trusting your instinct hugely reduces your chances of being targeted. Prior to Iran, sticking to our self-imposed rules, we’d travelled through 45 countries without a hitch.
Simply being aware of threats in your local area is often enough to keep you safe. In Russia for example we were warned by truck drivers to be aware of scam pleas for help by distressed smartly dressed men at the side of the road. Local knowledge is extremely valuable but be aware that most people will exaggerate the dangers and untrustworthiness of people in neighbouring countries! Careful selection of wild camping spots is vital; we always make sure no one sees us leave the road and try to remain out of sight from roads and habitation.
It is important to maintain a level of security in your vehicle that does not become a hindrance on a daily basis but is secure enough to ease your mind when the vehicle is unattended. There are times when you have no choice but to be away from the vehicle and it is during these times that your security options need to be religiously enforced.
It’s nigh on impossible to make your vehicle completely burglar-proof, ultimately if someone wants to get into your car, they will. All a thief needs is time and an opportunity, the more you can do to increase the time needed to get into the vehicle the less the opportunity exists. Your vehicle should appear to be a hard target, this will deter most criminals who will look for an easier target.
Most people tend to prioritise securing items that are perceived as valuable; laptops, cameras, phones, GPS, etc. The logic here being that no one is going to want to steal used maps, personal diaries and prescription glasses. The truth of the matter is, thieves are generally indiscriminate. In our case they simply took all they could in the time they had. Storage boxes are practical but they certainly made it easy for the thieves to empty our car. In this regard maybe a fixed and lockable draw system is more secure.
In hindsight we should have treated items like diaries and prescription glasses in the same way we dealt with other ‘valuables’. If you need glasses to drive and someone takes them you have a big problem. Thankfully I always have a pair stuck to my face and keep my prescription details on my micro SD card.
There are many smaller products on the market that are useful for overlanders including Baked Bean tin safes, these can be hidden amongst your food stash and are great for hiding smaller items. Combination key safes can be bolted or welded to the underside of your car and can hold a full set of spare keys in case you manage to lose your keys.
External heavy-duty commercial van door hasps are somewhat unsightly but they are also a great security addition, especially in conjunction with a draw system that can’t be accessed whilst the doors are closed. If a thief smashes a window they won’t be able to open the doors which in turn means they can’t access the draw system. This set-up should prevent the thieves from taking anything at all.
Most car thieves are small-time opportunistic criminals but in some extreme cases your vehicle may be targeted by a more professional outfit who actually want to take the entire vehicle. The simplest way to prevent this is not to leave your vehicle in the same place for more than one day. Think carefully about promoting your overland website and blog on your vehicle. Most overlanding websites like to feature photos of the vehicle build, storage systems and the equipment carried, this information can easily be used by would-be criminals who spot your vehicle.
If you can afford it, a hidden GPS tracker on your vehicle might save you one very expensive loss. We also recommend downloading one of the many remotely operated tracking and recovery apps that are available for most smart phones and laptops.
It is important to address security issues when prepping your vehicle; window grills, secure cages, safes and locking draw systems are easily available for vehicles like Defenders but are not commonplace in the UK for Toyotas like ours. You don’t need to spend a small fortune to be protected; simply having a few simple self-imposed rules is the greatest way of keeping you and your vehicle safe. Unfortunately we broke our rules and paid the price for doing so. Thankfully the people of Iran and our friends back home proved how amazing they are and came to our rescue helping us source and replace many of the items that were taken.
Fortunately the robbery didn’t dampen our adventurous spirit. It’s important to remember that most overlanders don’t ever fall victim to crime and the majority of people round the world are wonderfully friendly and honest.
Thailand has a love affair with the pick-up truck, literally everyone in Thailand drives a 4x4 pick-up. Sales of the Mitsubishi Triton, which is made in Thailand, practically saved the Japanese company from going out of business after a partnership deal with Germany's Daimler fell through. In 2007 they’d exported over a million Mitsubishi trucks to other Asian countries.
Mitsubishi’s are not the only popular model, all the Japanese manufacturers are represented, which is great for us being a Toyota owner as spare parts are easy to find.
What is noticeably different about Thailand in comparison to the rest of South-East Asia is that they like to modify their vehicles. Some are jacked up to ridiculous heights whilst others are slammed to the floor. One thing that Thai garages do well is suspension!
We spotted some incredibly well prepped off-road vehicles as well as some serious street racers. Like the Paykan pick-up in Iran most customised vehicles are still practical. In fact many of the suspension mods on the slammed vehicles are designed to handle extra weight, the upgraded suspension in combination with steel rear wheels and uprated tyres dictate the style of many vehicles.
Most towns and cities operate a private minibus system utilising the flatbed of the pick-up trucks as a seating area. This informal taxi system is the lifeblood of most cities.
Most of the minitrucks (the slammed ones) have custom soundsystems too that you’ll hear bumping from miles away.
Customization isn’t just limited to 4 wheels though; anyone who doesn’t own a 4x4 owns a scooter.
There are three models of scooter that are abundant throughout South-East Asia. The 125cc Honda Sonic, manufactured in Thailand and the similar Yamaha Mio and the Yamaha Nouvo. All three bikes are cheap, mechanically simple, relatively pokey and most motorcycle shops sell a whole host of accessories allowing for complete customization.
Scooters are frequently fitted with race handlebars, painted up in neon colours and covered in race inspired stickers. The mods are not just cosmetic, typically thinner wheels and tyres are fitted along with a big boar exhaust system, upgraded fuel delivery systems and brake upgrades.
Unlike any other country we have visited, and for reasons we don’t understand, Thailand is absolutely obsessed with modifying vehicles, which is great for any motor head!
The overlanding market has grown at an exceptional rate over the last 5 years and this is reflected in the increase of events being held globally. The Adventure Overland Show is the UK’s only dedicated show to cover all aspects of overlanding. It was however mostly attended by 4x4 owners and rather lacking in attendance from cyclists and motorcyclists.
Photo by Tony Borrill
We had the pleasure of giving two presentations and sitting on one discussion panel which was expertly hosted by Overland Sphere whose website and Facebook pages are fast becoming the ‘go to’ resource for overlanders.
The show featured many trade stalls and showcased numerous clubs and associations from around the UK. Mooching about the car park and admiring the extensive variety of vehicles led to meeting some interesting folk. Seemingly, the show was predominantly attended by people who’d made the first step of purchasing and prepping an overland vehicle. Most people I spoke with were in the process of planning their first trip outside of Europe, this again reflecting the recent growth within the community.
The real highlight for me though was finally meeting many of the people who have followed our adventure from its inception. We made many new friends and even found the time to interview a few of them for our Overlanding Podcast.
A great weekend, hopefully we’ll be within driving distance of it next year!
Auto rickshaws, tuk-tuks or simply just ‘autos’ are everywhere in India! It’s not known how many there are but in some towns and cities the number is seemingly so disproportionate to the amount of customers that the rickshaw stands are often overflowing with hundreds of empty autos awaiting their next fare.
For many Indians being an auto driver is a good honest job, although with a new auto costing about £1800 we couldn’t fathom how it was a viable career considering the competition for just one 20p fare! We met numerous rickshaw drivers who lived by the meter, offered an amazing service and were truly happy to hear about why we were in India! To encourage meter use we always tipped these guys generously. The story was very different in Delhi and the other tourist hotspots where walking down the street actually becomes a tedious task as countless autos cruise past hawking for trade. As a tourist you are targeted and hounded and after bartering with at least 5 or 6 drivers you will still end up paying about 4 times the meter price (which they will never use).
For some drivers their auto is home from home, you will frequently see drivers asleep across the back seat and eating meals. Most autos are black and yellow or green and yellow, yet despite their uniformity there is still room for personality. Many drivers customise their ‘Tuk-Tuk’ by adding personal modifications, custom paint jobs, chrome accessories, sticker portraits of their favourite Bollywood stars and huge soundsystems.
Riding in one is akin to taking a jaunt on a ghost train, the scare factor is certainly equal! The auto can turn on a dime, you are open to the sights, sounds and smells of the city and you could be hit in the face at anytime by anything! Amongst the sea of green and yellow the autos tussle for space with just inches to spare. Inside space is at a premium and you certainly feel like sardines in a can. Typically an auto can carry 4 people, on one occasion we witnessed 14 people riding on one rickshaw!