In 2009, Prince Albert II of Monaco asked experimental vehicle manufacturer Venturi to take a crack at designing an electric vehicle that could handle the harsh cold of Antarctica. Over the next 12 years, the company went to work. After testing out two full prototypes, the company pulled off a final product launch on June 1, 2021. The Venturi Antarctica, as the vehicle is called, has been transporting scientists and lab equipment in eastern Antarctica since December 2021.
Designing an electric vehicle for the harsh climate of Antarctica is no easy feat. The battery and other components have to be able to tolerate the frigid Antarctic temperatures, and there needs to be space to store research equipment and transport the researchers comfortably. Venturi has experience with experimental electric vehicles going back to 2000, and has competed in Formula E, the top-tier electric car racing competition in the world, since its inaugural season in 2014.
According to Venturi, scientists based at the Belgian Princess Elizabeth research station have driven the Antarctica EV over 500 kilometers (310 miles) in just one summer of use. The vehicle has a range of 50 kilometers (31 miles), with space for a second battery if the scientists need more range. However, its range can vary depending on how compact the snow it has to drive on is, and scientists started noticing some problems.
As climate change has affected global temperatures, Antarctica has warmed. Average temperatures on the icy continent ranges from a frigid -50 degrees Celsius (-58 F) inland to around -10 C (14 F) on the coasts, and the vehicle, designed for the extra cold, needed tweaks to tolerate the relative warmth. Venturi instructed researchers to limit trips to 40 kilometers (25 miles), and is beginning work on modifications to restore the vehicle to its true glory.
Since Antarctica is covered almost entirely in snow, the Antarctica EV uses a continuous track system, just like you’d expect on a snowcat or a snowmobile. The treads spread the 5,500 pounds of vehicle over its entire surface area, preventing the Antarctica EV from sinking into the snow like a wheeled vehicle would. But the warmer temperatures have caused the snow to stick to the sprockets that drive the treads, creating unwanted vibrations that could further damage the vehicle. The company has since redesigned and replaced the sprockets in an attempt to keep the vehicle in working order.
Increasing temperatures also made it more likely for the cabin, which is packed with electronics and exposed to the sun, to overheat. To balance that out, Venturi has had to install a new ventilation system for a more comfortable riding experience. They also made a new cooling system for the power electronic systems themselves.
Venturi announced on January 24 that their next set of improvements will be focused on redesigning the treads and increasing the vehicle’s range in Antarctica. Barring any other unforeseen circumstances, these should allow the vehicle to putter around the ice and snow of the southern continent more and more in the years to come.