Around the World in an Electric Car: Four University of Chicago alumni prove environmentally friendly vehicles can go the distance

(Ellis Calvin)

(Ellis Calvin)


Jeff Bladt says he has a penchant for traveling “by the seat of his pants.” The idea of buying a plane ticket and figuring out the rest of the trip once he gets there is very appealing to him. Next spring, Bladt plans to embark on an expedition with three of his friends that promises to be more extensive than any he’s been on previously: the first trip around the world in an electric car. The group has titled their expedition Project EVIE (EV for Electric Vehicle) and for the last several months, they have been involved in rigorous planning, a search for sponsorship, and ongoing research in preparation. As Bladt anticipates the trip, he depicts it as simultaneously paying homage to the spirit of self-reliant, pants-seat travel and following a carefully mapped-out course, contingent on the support of other people.

The idea for Project EVIE was born about five months ago. At first it was nothing more than talk among friends Jeff Bladt, Jon Azrielant, Andrea Fjeld, and Matt Vance, all recent graduates of the University of Chicago. Working in various fields–Vance was working for a publication, Fjeld (a former Chicago Weekly editor-in-chief) in advertising, Bladt and Azrielant had both moved around between New York and foreign countries–they found themselves caught in what Bladt describes as a “what-am-I-actually-doing paradigm.” Motivated by the prospect of taking on something new, Bladt says, their project “went from dinner conversation to incorporation in about three weeks.” They had a vision of an electric car whizzing through the desert, and they decided it was something they could pursue and promote. A big part of their project so far has been figuring out how to act on an idea–and how to see it through to its realization–without working within the structure of a preexistent company or agenda.

Project EVIE hopes to work towards recreating the image of the electric vehicle in American media and convention. Now primarily conceived of as a purchase exclusively suitable for a particular sociopolitical niche, the electric vehicle is something that Project EVIE hopes to promote as capable of performing the standard tasks of a gas-powered car, and as something with its own history of use. Statistically, Americans consume more than twenty million barrels of oil every day, forty-six percent of which is used for motor gasoline. If the entire American population were to make the transition from gas-powered to electric vehicles, gas consumption and carbon emissions would be cut by almost half, according to Project EVIE.

There is a certain irony in the classic American vision of driving from one end of the States to the other, since such travel is dependent on the import of oil from countries that are both far away from the U.S. and at odds with the U.S. politically. According to Project EVIE’s website, the most common reason Americans cite for not switching to electric vehicles is a concern about their range. Project EVIE plans to address that concern by proving that an electric vehicle can be taken on one of the longest road trips imaginable.

Road travel has a rich history in our culture: The cross-country road trip has a kind of iconic appeal. The cross-globe road trip, though, is another story. The planning and research process for Project EVIE confirms that this type of trip would not have been possible in the same way five years ago. The Project EVIE team has made extensive use of social media technologies via the Internet. Through their website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter, they’ve been able to get in touch with sponsors, interested supporters, people who have driven any number of the less-traveled segments of their journey, and electric-vehicle drivers all over the world. They’ve gotten in touch with people in dozens of countries on different continents who have helped them figure out where they’ll be able to charge their car on each leg of their trip–including places where there aren’t public charging stations, where they’ll have to charge their car in places that have large power supplies, like universities or personal charging systems at people’s homes. This has allowed them to map out a route they continue to amend as they learn more about possible options, and to plan a trip on which every morning when they set out to drive, they’ll know where they’ll be sleeping that night. It is important that it be so mapped out because they want to make sure they get to major cities to promote the electric vehicle. Their planning has been a learning process, a foray into media politics and diplomacy, which the team has been embracing as they apply their collective experience gained from an eclectic range of academic and travel backgrounds. In addition to the four members of the Project EVIE team who will be in the car, they have a number of people helping them with research and their website. They continue to welcome anyone who is interested in getting involved to join their project.

Next year, when the team sets off on the road, they will be welcomed into the homes of strangers. The people whom they’ve gotten in touch with through their social media networks have been strikingly receptive to their plan, and various media enterprises, such as a Spanish news channel and a talk show in Tel Aviv, are already planning to feature Project EVIE in their programming. It may be that this is the right time for this kind of project, and that the general public is beginning to embrace the electric car. Many major U.S.-supplying motor companies plan to unveil electric vehicles in 2010, and increasingly electric cars are coming out that are designed to target particular audiences: Chrysler will soon come out with a Jeep EV, and Tesla, a California company that produces electric vehicles exclusively, has a high-end two-door electric sports car already on the market. As part of their ongoing electric vehicle education, the Project EVIE team has sampled various models. They are awaiting word from potential sponsors before announcing which model they will be taking on their expedition, but they know it will be a four-door sedan-sized vehicle that may feature the names and logos of sponsors.

If all continues to go smoothly in their planning, Bladt, Azrielant, Fjeld, and Vance will be departing in March or April of 2010 from New Zealand, and will end their journey in New York City eighteen months later. Their exact route is still subject to ongoing adjustments and incorporation of new information. There are a couple of places they want to make a special point of visiting, such as Alaska and Machu Picchu. For the most part, however, their route will be fairly continuous. They will be stopping in many major cities, where their passing through can be received and covered by local media. Over bodies of water they will board car ferries, and in two instances they will ship their vehicle separately and take a boat to the next land mass. For those stuck at home, they will be updating their blog (blog.project-evie.org) regularly while on the road.

The group does not see their project as ending upon their arrival in New York; they have plans to go on a national speaking tour, and have been in touch with filmmakers concerning a possible documentary using footage they’ll shoot on the trip. Consistent with the ethos of the rest of their process, the documentary component is something the Project EVIE team is embracing without any particular prior experience. Vance compares the experience of experimenting with so many new ideas while starting up this project to pursuing a big research project and writing a paper. “There’s something about the philosophy of starting a project like this–the individualism, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps kind of thing–that I think UofC people can identify with.”

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