Concepts and Prototypes: Ice Scout

A legendary sports-car builder engineers a featherweight, ethanol-powered supercar on skis to lead an expedition across Antarctica

When you’re driving a 4.7-ton truck filled with scientific equipment across a crevasse-strewn Antarctic wasteland, choosing the right path is critical. Deep cracks in the ice, invisible from a distance, can swallow a truck whole. An Antarctic expedition needs an ultra-light scout vehicle to run ahead and find a safe route before the heavy machinery rolls through. That’s exactly what the Concept Ice Vehicle (CIV) is built to do.

It’s the creation of England’s Lotus Engineering, an arm of the custom automaker famous for building lightweight, go-kart-height sports cars like the Esprit and Elise. The CIV will lead this fall’s Moon Regan TransAntarctic Expedition, a 3,000-mile trek whose goal is to gather information about snowfall patterns, the Antarctic atmosphere, and the performance of biofuels in one of the world’s harshest environments.

Made of 80 percent aircraft-grade aluminum, the sled weighs only 793 pounds, light enough that its crew can drag it across the snow if the terrain gets too rough. The vehicle glides on three Teflon-coated skis, each mounted independently to shocks that can flex more than two feet in case of a particularly brutal bump. “You ride along the snow, and it can be very flat,” says Kieron Bradley, the former Formula One engineer who led the CIV team. “All of a sudden, it’s four-foot sastrugi” — irregular snow ridges, cut by the wind, that would sink a regular snowmobile. Once out in front of the pack, the CIV will use ice-penetrating radar to detect crevasses and other hazards in order to map out a route for two six-wheel trucks carrying the rest of the crew and equipment.

The CIV’s engine, a 1.15-liter twin-stroke BMW motorcycle engine modified to use E85 fuel (85 percent ethanol), is itself a bit of an experiment: Part of the expedition’s goal is to measure the viscosity and combustion point of ethanol in a variety of altitudes and extremely cold temperatures. The 120-horsepower engine drives a rear-mounted, carbon-fiber propeller capable of pushing the CIV to 85 mph — faster than any smart operator will drive it in a low-contrast, snow-blinded environment like the Antarctic, where the driver will need plenty of time to react to any surprises.

The CIV will begin testing next month at Lotus’s proving grounds in Sweden, and if all goes well, in November it will lead the English adventurers Andrew Regan, Andrew Moon and Jason de Carteret on a full traverse of Antarctica, from the western Ronne ice shelf, across the South Pole, and then north through the Trans-Antarctic Mountain range to McMurdo Bay. After that journey, the CIV will have done its duty. “It’s made with one purpose only,” Bradley says — to finish the expedition successfully. “What they do with it afterward? It’s entirely up to them.”