For Nick Baggarly, driving is a passion.
“The word ‘drive’ doesn’t necessarily have to do with cars,” he says. “It has to do with personal ambition, a drive to make a difference, to change the world, to believe you can, and to look for any kind of creative avenue in response to the problems we face.”
As executive director of Drive Around the World, Baggarly has made driving his mission.
In 1999, he led the LATITUDE Expedition, where six people in 1960s Land Rover Dormobiles drove west for 80 days, across 16,000 miles, from Beijing, China to San Francisco, Calif. (with help from boats when they encountered pesky things like oceans).
In 2003, Baggarly led the LONGITUDE Expedition, a 16-month, 44,000-mile drive south from California to the tip of South America, then back up through Australia, Russia, and Alaska, ending back in California. This time the mission raised funds and awareness to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease.
And in November 2015, he’ll be at it again. This time, the expedition is called ZERO SOUTH, a 1,200-mile expedition to the South Pole in two Hummers converted from their gas-guzzling stereotype into hybrid-electric vehicles so that the mission uses zero fossil fuels.
“ZERO SOUTH is the greatest incarnation of our model that we’ve ever undertaken,” Baggarly says.
“Every Drive Around the World program highlights a different cause, and our mission allows us to drive for humanitarian causes or disease advocacy or even environmental causes. When people ask, ‘What’s the cause for ZERO SOUTH?’ I tell them, we’re driving for zero fossil fuels. It’s been technically challenging and it’s been an amazing ride, but we’re also looking forward to getting this project done.”
Okay, but Hummers?!
Baggarly says the Hummer elicits very polarized reactions from people, without much middle ground, and that makes them a great choice for the project.
“If you see a Hummer go down the street, you want to see who’s in it and what in the world that thing is doing. So, we’re leveraging a symbol, taking the latest technology and stuffing it into the last thing people would expect, and then doing something relevant with it instead of just throwing it away.”
The ZERO SOUTH project came in the form of a joke someone sent Baggarly during the LONGITUDE Expedition.
“I get emails from people who want to drive all over creation, and we answer every single one,” he recalls, “and one person said, ‘Well, you’ve driven around the world’s longitude and latitude. Next you have to go where the lines meet.’ And they were joking.”
But with that “joke,” the person included a link to a press release from the National Science Foundation announcing a traverse route to the South Pole.
“It wasn’t even a paved or gravel road; it was an ice road for hauling supplies or fuel,” he says. “And I said, ‘That’s definitely the next project, driving to the South Pole is logically the next thing we should do.’”
That joke spawned the work that has consumed Baggarly’s life for the past five years, which will culminate in the drive to the South Pole, as well as an eight-episode TV series documenting the journey, with the environmental angle playing a big role in the mission.
“After we just did these two drives around the world, we came back completely changed about how we think about the environment,” he says. “We knew we couldn’t drive a fossil fuel–burning vehicle to the South Pole. But we also couldn’t drive a Land Rover like we did on our past expeditions, either, because the track is too narrow and we’re driving on snow and ice.”
Because of the ice, he knew he needed something bigger, wider, and higher.
“We knew we had to build something custom,” Baggarly says. “And I just loved the idea of using a Hummer. This is one of the only vehicles that is wider than it is tall, and it’s boxy and square like an erector set. You can convert it to just about anything, so we set out to make it better, stronger, and faster.”
Hollywood legend James Cameron already had his own Humvee with tracks, so he sent Baggarly a three-page technical email on how to convert the vehicles. Volunteers—including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hummer mechanic and Jay Leno’s mechanic—pitched in, as well as retired engineers from General Motors electric vehicle program and military contractors who once led their own program to create electric Humvees. And, since this is for public awareness (and being filmed for a TV show), even the introduction of the Hummer to the garage was a celebrity affair.
“These two vehicles are really symbols—people either love the Hummer or despise it,” he says. “Fans of the vehicle are fascinated at what this team has created, and people who despise Hummers give us hugs. . . . I figured, who would want to take a Hummer off the road and tear it into pieces more than Ed Begley Jr.?!”
So, with the cameras rolling, Begley drove the vehicle into their workspace, got out, and said, “Wow, I can’t believe anybody could get me to drive a Hummer.”
The vehicle itself is completely retooled for the mission, fusing the Hummer bodies onto machinery rated for the freezing conditions, ice paths, and arctic terrains.
All of this technology—much of which had to be created custom for this mission—is open source.
“At the end of the project, we’re writing a white paper to talk about the vehicle, and publishing all the CAD files, all the drawings, all the schematics,” Baggarly says. “Not that someone is going to end up building one of these things, but enthusiasts building projects in their garage may say, ‘I want to use their pre-charge algorithm,’ or, ‘I want to use their throttle control or battery pack design.”
“Everything they do will be available for others to take, build on, and do more with,” says Jonathan Knowles, director of strategic initiatives at Autodesk. “So it was a no-brainer to provide them with software to get this project done and share it with the world.”
Knowles and Baggarly have been friends for nearly 30 years, and Knowles has been an advisor to Drive Around the World since its inception.
“At Autodesk, we are very interested in not just caring about things that are being done, especially with regard to our technology, but really participating,” Knowles says. “In the past 10 years or so in Silicon Valley, there has been a real sense of people who want to do good and make a positive impact. Now, it’s even to the point where a show like Silicon Valley makes fun of it.
“But the vibe of that is something that Nick has had for Drive Around the World since I’ve known him,” Knowles continues. “We met over technology back in the ’80s, and even back then I remember he would always be looking for what kind of legacy of good we could do that would get passed on and on, so it wasn’t just a single good thing, but more of a domino effect.”
Despite the future TV show, the potential for it to become an ongoing series, and the awareness it will raise, Baggarly still has the minor detail of driving to the South Pole, although he is as prepared as he can possibly be.
“I haven’t been to Antarctica before, but we know with confidence that the drive from the edge to the Pole will take six days,” he says. “We know the distance. We know the route. We also have film objectives on the way, and we know vehicle problems and weather are the things most likely to slow us down.
“So, we have a roughed-out schedule. We have six to 10 days to get there, then two days and two nights at the Pole, then six to 10 days to get back.”
But because he’s also filming a TV show, in addition to getting to the South Pole without using any fossil fuels, he’s covered either way.
“Whether it all goes according to plan, I don’t know,” he says. “If it doesn’t, it’s certainly going to make for good television.”
Right now, ZERO SOUTH is welcoming more partners to put the final touches on the vehicles and finish staging for the December expedition.
“The first hybrid to drive to the South Pole will be a Hummer and it will get there on zero fossil fuels,” Baggarly says. “For six years, I’ve been waking up excited about this project. I just think it’s cool.”