Flipping the switch on the first Emirates Electric Vehicle Road Trip

We join the inaugural Emirates EVRT, an electric-car jaunt through the UAE.

Four Tesla Model S cars, a Renault Zoe, far left, and a Tesla Model X, with its falcon-wing doors open, centre, on the Emirates EVRT, near Jebel Jais. Courtesy James Wight / Global EVRT
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In the land of four-wheel drives and supercars, the petrol engine is king. But it doesn’t have to be that way, say the region’s small but growing community of electric-vehicle (EV) owners.

Mohamed Alfahhad, owner of a Tesla Model S P85D, and the first person to import an electric vehicle into Saudi Arabia, recently joined five other UAE-based Tesla owners, three Renault Zoe drivers and a globetrotting Dutch sustainability advocate in his retrofitted 2009 Volkswagen Golf for the inaugural Emirates Electric Vehicle Road Trip (EVRT) last week, part of a global initiative to raise awareness of sustainable energy.

Alfahhad had to ship his battery-­run pride and joy to Dubai on a trailer because of an absence of charging stations between Saudi Arabia and here. He’s one of the most enthusiastic “volt-heads” around.

“You plug it in at home, just like a phone; charge and go. What’s not to love?” he says. Although speed-lovers might also note that the car can accelerate faster than a Bugatti Veyron, taking 2.8 seconds to go from 0 to 60kph with a top speed of 250kph.

Road to sustainability

The four-day Emirates-wide tour was the brainchild of Ben Pullen, founder and managing director of Global EVRT, the company behind the idea to bring the road trip to the UAE for the first time. The event had the dual goal of raising awareness of the potential for EV adoption in the region and accelerating the low-carbon future agenda, as well as launching a series of charging stations sponsored by the French energy company Engie at hotel locations in Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah and Abu Dhabi.

With the number of vehicles on the road in the UAE doubling from 2006 to 2014, Pullen believes the Emirates is primed to lead the way in green solutions to sustainable-transportation challenges. “With year-round sunshine and as a country where people love their cars, Dubai, and the UAE, is probably the best place in the world for EVs, especially with advancements in solar-energy technology,” he says.

“With the additional charging stations, this opens up the UAE roads to over 750 kilometres of EV driving, without having to worry about if and where you can charge.”

EV economics

Engie’s 10 new charging stations will add to more than 100 Dewa-­installed stations in Dubai, and Sharjah’s first two locations, launched by Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq) last year.

Charging a Tesla. Courtesy James Wight / Global EVRT

“From a cost perspective, if we charge the Renault Zoe, which has a 42kW battery, multiplied by the Dewa rate of 29 fils [per kW], this works out at [a total of] Dh12 with a range of up to 350 kilometres,” Pullen says.

The Tesla Model S and ­Model X, with its falcon-wing doors that conjure memories of the iconic DeLorean DMC-12 used in Back to the Future, obviously come with a hefty price tag, and these examples are all direct imports.

“The economics are there in the long run, but at this point this isn’t the driving factor, it’s simply that these are incredible cars,” Pullen says.

Renault Zoe owner Salman ­Hussain, from Dubai, found his car on Dubizzle, and signed up for the road trip partly to see whether his 120km limited-range vehicle could make it all the way (it did), and to be part of the movement to demonstrate EVs as a sustainable business model. “Dewa has installed lots of charging stations, but as yet, the car distributors aren’t up to speed in terms of their offerings. The Zoe is great, but at some point I will be looking for something in the bigger capacity range,” he says.

Leading the charge

The route, which started in ­Dubai, took the 40 participants, sponsors and partners through congested mid-afternoon traffic to the Sharjah flagpole – for the first of many photo opportunities – before hitting the open highway to Ras Al Khaimah for an overnight stay, then a further 72 hours taking in the scenic delights of Jebel Jais, Fujairah and Abu Dhabi, before returning to Dubai.

Also joining the trip was ­Robert Llewellyn, actor, producer and presenter of popular online renewable-­energy-focused series Fully Charged, and perhaps best known for playing mechanoid character Kryten in British sitcom Red Dwarf.

While his wife calls his decision to buy a Tesla a “late-life crisis”, Llewellyn is serious about the switch to EVs. “Mechanically, an electric vehicle is very simple and they don’t tend to go wrong. An internal combustion engine has 400 to 1,000 moving parts while an electric motor has two bearings and one moving part,” he says.

Jordan Spasovski from Macedonia has owned his Tesla Model S for just two months, but has been following the story of the company’s figurehead, Elon Musk, since 2010: “I’ve been breathing, eating and sleeping Tesla for years. I’m not a car nut per se; I was drawn to the story behind the car and his vision,” Spasovski says.

Luckily for their owners, breakdowns don’t seem to be a fact of life for EVs, and while service issues are few and far between, the Tesla owners’ community teams up to fly in a technician from Germany every few months to troubleshoot any minor issues.

“The only things I have to worry about are the wiper blades and possibly, at some point, the brake pads,” Alfahhad says.

Llewellyn adds that the big challenge is the battery, “although technology is already proving to be more viable than it was just a few years ago”.

More dealer interest would aid EV availability and support, which was another reason bringing the event to the UAE, Pullen says. “We want to get more dealers to bring their cars here, and that’s one of the challenges. There are a few hybrids already available, and Renault has had the Zoe here for a few years with A W Rostamani, with the new 400-kilometre-range model coming soon.”

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, Spasovski says: “If you want to buy a Nissan Leaf, for example, the dealer is already selling thousands of Patrols each year, so their argument is that there’s no interest from the market, but the consumer doesn’t have access to a range of electric vehicles to make an informed ­decision.”

Green incentives

Tesla driver Joerg Zinn, from Germany, believes that while our fondness for SUVs and powerful engines won’t drop a gear anytime soon, if there were financial incentives to persuade people to go electric, this could prompt a rise in second-car EV purchases.

Two Renault Twizys at the Emirates EVRT launch at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. Courtesy James Wight / Global EVRT

This is already on the radar for some of the Emirates EVRT sponsors, with Dubai’s ­Sustainability City, which has five Dewa charging stations within the community, also offering investors a Dh40,000 subsidy towards their first electric vehicle with every property purchase. Emirates NBD has also launched an “affordable” and low-service-charge green-car loan, and is currently working on refining the offer to add a number of extra benefits.

Reflecting on the event, which covered 703km with zero breakdowns or tech issues – although one driver did end up at the wrong hotel – Pullen says: “There was a sense of something monumental being achieved and participation was wholehearted, with a real enthusiasm for what the team is trying to achieve.

“It also helped dispel the myth of ‘range anxiety’, which is a marketing term designed to keep petrol/diesel cars in business. We coined a new term – range excitement – driven by the surprising ability of EVs to go well beyond range when driven well.”

Fuel for thought

Wiebe Wakker and his Golf in Dubai. Courtesy Wiebe Wakker

Among the super-luxe Teslas and nippy Renault Zoes, a lone wolf stood out at the Emirates EVRT.

Driven by 29-year-old Wiebe Wakker from The Netherlands, the 2009 diesel converted Volkswagen Golf has already clocked up more than 35,000km as part of a globetrotting documentary filmmaking trip about sustainability.

Wakker, who has been on the road since March 2015, travelling through Italy, Scandinavia, Russia, the Baltic States, Ukraine and Turkey, joined the Emirates EVRT after arriving in the UAE from Iran.

If criss-crossing the world in an electric vehicle wasn't enough of a challenge, he also travels without any form of funding, relying only on the generosity of people he meets en route or connects with via his website (www.plugmeinproject.com).

“People have been supporting me with a meal, place to sleep or energy for the car,” he says. “Based on the response, I decide the route of my journey. So I am not driving in a straight line, but zigzagging my way across the world.”

So far so good, although while in the UAE, he was pulled over by a friendly policeman for a routine check – a first in all 22 countries that he has visited to date.