Hjalte has already seen me coming up the driveway to their house. He opens the door and greets me. I notice the electric Nissan Qashqai jacked up with one rear wheel removed. “What’s wrong with your car?” I ask. “Green won’t charge,” he answers. “Nina thinks it has something to do with the charge port, and I removed the wheel to be able to look behind it.”
Nina Rasmussen and Hjalte Tin named their car Green, because it’s green in very beautifully designed graphics. The car is covered with stickers that reveal this car has a special story to tell. The biggest sticker says “Moto Mundo,” which is the name of a motorcycle travel agency that Hjalte and his daughter Ida founded in 2006 to help motorcycle explorers get the most of their wild dreams of traveling the world. Nina and Hjalte have traveled for years on motorcycle with their kids Emil and Ida on the back seat.
“Come and have a look under the bonnet, I’ll show you all the bits and pieces that make this car tick.” Hjalte points at large and small metal boxes that indicate this is certainly no ordinary Nissan Qashqai. “That little box is the motor controller, and these two are the chargers, one phase each, and they can automatically detect if you feed one or two phases of electricity. Combined, they can charge the battery with 7 kW.” Oh, right, that’s the special thing about this car. It’s not picky about the quality of supplied electricity. It would never have made it around the world otherwise.
Wait, did I say just around the world? I sure did! I had asked Hjalte and Nina to tell me the story about their incredible journey around the world in an electric car. How did it all start? What were the challenges?
But first, Hjalte tells me about the inverter, the batteries, the DC-DC converter, and … well, alright, let’s get the specs listed, so that we know what kind of vehicle we are dealing with here.
Nissan Qashqai Electric
Motor: 60 kW, liquid cooled, asynchronous AC
Transmission: 6 speed, FWD
Battery: Lithium-polymer, 34 kWh
Charger: 230V 8A — 400V 16A (20 — 6 hour charge time)
Range: 200–300 km (125–185 miles)
Top speed: 130 km/h (80 mph)
Acceleration 0–100 km/h (0–62 mph): 12 seconds
Weight: 1625 kg (1960 kg total)
Clearance: 170 mm
Hjalte shows me a brochure from a company that converted ordinary gas cars to electric propulsion back in 2010. AFuture was the name of the company, founded by engineer Søren Ekelund. They had delivered a dozen electric Nissan Qashqai to COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 and now they were hoping to mass produce this kind of car for the Danish market. Unfortunately, the motors in the first editions had faults and had to be replaced, but eventually they had a solid product. To prove the cars worked in real life, Nina and Hjalte volunteered to help drive two of the cars around the world.
Nina and Hjalte’s son Emil designed the graphics on the two cars in blue and green colors, hence the names Blue and Green.
“What happened to the blue car?” I ask. I just remembered something about it being stranded in Moscow, but I am curious about the details. “Let’s go inside and have a cup of coffee” Hjalte says, “I’ll tell you all about it!”
Inside their amazing hexagonal-shaped house I greet Nina. Coffee is served, and Hjalte finds the blog on his computer. “We never got the chance to test the cars before the world tour, but we had faith that Søren, who had built them, had everything under control,” Hjalte says, “but in fact Blue was not ready, so we started out from Copenhagen in Green.”
While Hjalte is going through the blog, I listen carefully and look in the book the two of them had written about the tour, enjoying their warm hospitality and engaging storytelling. I realize that I am dealing with real globetrotters. I mean, they make me feel quite ordinary, and all the while it must also be a real challenge for them to get that exact feeling of adventure planted in the hearts of an audience with nothing but tools of communication. But I am immediately drawn into it. The fact that we share an interest in EVs does of course help a lot.
Even though Nina and Hjalte completed their world tour more than 6 years ago, their story is more relevant than ever before. It was about that time the world opened its eyes to electric cars being a real alternative to internal combustion engine cars. Nissan showed with the LEAF in 2010 that an electric car could be a solid car with ordinary comfort and practicality, and Tesla proved without a doubt that electric cars could have sufficient range combined with fast charging. But as always, price is the catalyst for any game-changing technological breakthrough, and without the breakthrough, the price won’t go down. The solution is the combination of first movers and investors.
After a couple of hours, the coffee has gone cold and Hjalte — having reached the end of the blog — suggests I take the book home with me. “Oh, and why don’t you come round this Saturday? Søren will be here trying to fix the charging problem. You would have the chance to ask him about the tech stuff.”
Overcoming the Impossible
I spend the following days buried in their book and I feel the adventure being almost tangible. It is easy for me to get excited thanks to the way the story is told. Hjalte and Nina switch the narrative between themselves, and there are of course many episodes with extreme difficulties getting the cars charged and making the electronics work. Blue had been sent up to Stockholm, Sweden, after being late for the official start of the tour. However, it already got in trouble at the ferry to Estonia because of a drained 12 volt battery. Eventually, Blue had to give up in Moscow, and the mission continued in only one car, Green. But having only one car to charge was still no easy feat.
In a heatwave of 40°C in Menselinks east of Moscow, Green’s battery got so hot that they had to wait for it to cool down before charging. Soon, rain started pouring down.
“I’m standing in the mud fumbling with the wires and the tester reveals for the tenth time that the Russian plug has no neutral and no earth. No matter how I connect the plug, the car won’t charge. What is going on inside those black boxes? The electric car is silent, clean, and has no exhaust, but everything that makes it so comfortable and soothing is turning against me this evening as ice cold doubt. With this electric car it’s all or nothing. Like an invisible hand that turns it on or off with no warning. Not the slightest warning in rattling sounds, wining gears, or gradual weakening, like I know so well from our old Citroen 2CV.
“My flashlight is losing power and I am soaked to my skin. I am tired and I feel miserable. My lack of knowledge grows to a wave of insecurity that washes the last glows of enthusiasm away in the mud. I switch the wires again. Suddenly I get a massive electric shock, my hand stiffens, my arm twitches, and I drop the wires. My glasses run full of water as I desperately try to find the wires in the mud in frantic fear of being electrocuted. Why will the damn car not charge?”
The inverter malfunctioned in Omsk, and Green had to be towed more than 2,000 km through the wet woods of Siberia to Irkutsk, where Søren had sent a new inverter with DHL.
“Three hours, two sandwiches, and a bottle of water later, the new inverter was in place. We had been very thorough to connect it properly. Both of us had checked that all pipes with cooling fluid and all electrical wires were mounted correctly. I get in the driver’s seat and call up Søren on the satellite phone and tell him that the inverter is now replaced.
— Tell Hjalte to take a step back, and then very gently try to turn the car on … Søren instructs me.
— I’ve already done that, I tell him, and can’t help smiling — and it didn’t blow up!
I hear a deep sigh of relief from Søren. I press the accelerator gently and watch the tachometer move. The motor sounds like a big fat happy mosquito. I shout enthusiastically out at Hjalte:
— It’s alive!”
Well, here I thought that I had problems with electric cars. You know, short range, charging stations blocked by petrol cars, irritating stuff. Up until now, I had felt like a genuine First Mover, but now, not so much. Here I am dealing with the first people that met the challenge of going around the world in an electric car without having a clue how to charge it, albeit having a generator with them for emergency situations (though, it was malfunctioning and even stolen!). Nina puts it this way in the book: “A trip around the world is the least suitable task for an electric car, but we’ll try it anyway!”
A Tight Schedule
They even had an unreasonably tight schedule. First of all, they had plans to reach the Danish pavilion of the World Expo in Shanghai, as the first electric car getting there by its own power. Second, they had to reach the Detroit Auto Show, where Tesla presented their Model S drivetrain platform for the first time. Third, they had start position no. 110 in the Rally Monte Carlo Energie Alternative for cars with alternative energy propulsion. And last but not least, they had to reach Copenhagen at a certain date, where the minister of climate and environment would be waiting.
Did they succeed? Well, let me just say that Nina and Hjalte have driven Green in their daily life ever since that day when they started out from the town square in Copenhagen, June 25th, 2010. The unique car reached 100,000 kilometers a few months ago, with no signs of fatigue in either batteries or motor. If you are lucky enough to understand Danish, you can read the book or e-book Helt elektrisk jorden rundt. Otherwise, their blog about the trip is also in English. If you like adventures as well as electric cars, I guarantee you will be well entertained!
Meeting the Engineer
Saturday, I am back at their house to meet up with Søren Ekelund. His company AFuture closed in the middle of Hjalte and Nina’s tour around the world, because one of his other cars had caught fire on a passenger ferry. The episode had really upset a lot of people, understandably. I had previously met him in 2016 at an exhibition where he presented a Nissan e-NV200 with a methanol fuel cell capable of extending the standard configuration of the car to 800 km of range! Surely, you are never bored in Søren’s presence.
I greet Søren and Hjalte already busy working on Green, and since it is getting dark, I get the honorable job of holding the flashlight. “The car’s battery is quite low on power. It needs to charge as soon as possible,” Søren says while glancing at his computer that is hooked up to the electronics of Green. “But the cells are fine, they are in perfect balance.” It was perhaps problems with cell balance that had caused the fire in the car on the ferry, but it has never been definitely established. If just one cell is overcharged, it becomes so hot it can start a chain reaction. “It’s all about software, but nowadays the electric car business has that under complete control,” he comforts me.
I ask Søren why they chose lithium-polymer batteries for these cars, when the norm was the ordinary lithium-ion gel kind that are found in EVs today. He explains that lithium-polymer was the safest kind at the time — given that physical properties and heat distribution of ordinary cells were not well enough understood — especially when you wanted to pack so many cells together in a car that was going to drive through rough terrain. Also, the so called lithium-iron-phosphate, though quite safe, were too heavy, due to low energy density. Today, things have developed to a point that it is far more likely for an ICE to catch fire than an EV.
After a few more measurements, Søren concludes that maybe Green has a faulty 12 volt battery. It can’t peak the 250 W needed to drive the main battery relay. It’s ironic that a small 1 kWh battery can have total supremacy over a big and powerfull 34 kWh battery. I’ve tried it myself, though, running out of juice in my BMW i3 and depleting the 12 volt battery by leaving the heater on. Without 12 volt power, the main relays won’t work and you have a bricked car on your hands.
The development in the electric car industry has been progressing exceptionally fast the last handful of years, and Nina and Hjalte are happy they don’t have to be concerned whether electric cars will be common. It’s only a question of how fast it will happen. Søren does not build electric cars anymore, but he is working with the teams developing software for the new superfast charging networks popping up all over the world. Back in 2010–2011 when Nina and Hjalte drove around the world, there was no such thing as a charging network…
So, where will the incredible Green — the world’s most stubborn electric car — end up when the last electric mile is driven? Nina and Hjalte hope it will end up in a nice museum. I hope so too. The story about the first real and roomy electric car completing a journey around the world, in the infancy of the modern electric mobility era, is too important to be forgotten. [Editor’s note: I think it would also be a good symbol of the DIY, conversion era of EVs. Perhaps it could go alongside the tzero, a key inspiration for Tesla’s founders.] Green should end its days in a beautiful hall where people will admire it the way it has been used to since it drove its very first electric mile.
Update: Søren has informed me that Green’s charging problem has been fixed. He thinks maybe the car should have a go at the race tracks before ending its days at the museum though!
The Route around the World
Russia (Watch video)
Moscow, Omsk, Irkutsk
Mongolia (Watch video)
China (Watch video)
USA (Watch video) (Also watch this great interview with Jack Rickard at EVTV)
San Francisco, Dallas, Detroit, New York
Europe (Watch video)
Valencia, Monaco, Copenhagen
Packing List for a Trip around the World
Bag with plugs
Empty 20 liter petrol can
2 spare chargers
1 spare DC-DC converter
1 spare 12 volt battery
Snow scraper, umbrella, signs
Towing rope, leashes, strings
Air mattresses , sleeping bags
1 crate with cooking equipment
1 crate with food
Photostand and wiring
Paper and books
Satelite phone and satelite antenna on roof
2 big bags
Boots, shoes, slippers socks
Warm clothing, jackets and rain clothes
Banners and flags
Through the US, their daughter Ida and grandson Elliot found room in the car as well!