Women drivers are making their own roads in the eighth annual Rebelle Rally, where rocky uphills, sandy dunes, and chilly nights are no match for these tough ladies and their navigational skills. Now, the longest rally raid in the country is proving even electric vehicles are unrivaled by rough terrain– and the lack of power outlets.
Nearly 130 women at the helm of 64 cars made their way through eight days of rugged terrain in the open expanse of the Eastern Sierras last week. Put into [mostly] bone stock vehicles– cars any consumer can walk out of a dealership with– these two women driver-navigator teams showcased their abilities to think quickly and navigate distinct but rather inconspicuous surroundings while looking for specific markers, all without the use of cell phones, GPS, or other technology.
As if that wasn’t challenging enough, five teams completed Rebelle in electric vehicles: four Rivians (an R1T pickup even finished first in the rally’s 4×4 class) and the not-yet-released Ford Mustang Mach-E.
For off-road racing legend and Rebelle Rally founder and director Emily Miller, figuring out how to charge the vehicles seemingly in the middle of nowhere without any electrical outputs was just another test she had to overcome.
“I assumed it was gonna be easier than we thought. But see, once I start something, I don’t like to quit,” said Miller at the Browns Owens River Campground on the eve of the rally’s start. “And it was not easy, but it was worth doing because it’s the difference between us being in business.”
That isn’t to say creating the Rebelle Rally, let alone ensuring it continues to run as smoothly as it does year after year, isn’t a challenge in itself. Miller has to coordinate between federal, state, and municipal governments, secure permits, and ensure last-minute weather changes won’t undo months of hard work by Miller and her team. This year, Miller had to personally go through portions of the course that were decimated when Hurricane Hilary made landfall in California in August– and she said that will only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dealing with climate change.
Miller, who has seen the podium at many renowned races and has instructed over 8,000 people how to navigate and drive off-road, isn’t sounding the alarm bell for no reason. Cars and trucks emit over a fifth of all greenhouse gases emitted in the United States, the second-worst greenhouse gas emitter globally (we’ve only just recently lost first place to China). That means vehicle usage in the United States alone accounts for one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. With about 1.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases emitted by highway vehicles per year, and with the effects of climate change becoming all the more apparent in our daily lives, ameliorating even just a small portion of emissions can go a long way in helping mitigate any future effects on our environment.
“People tell me that they want their kids to do this. If they want their kids to do it someday soon, I was gonna have to figure it out,” Miller said more bluntly. “And it’s not easy and nobody is doing a long-distance rally like this.”
Rebelle has been working with Salt Lake City-based energy company Renewable Innovations for several years now. Still, Miller explained with five electric vehicles in the rally this year (the largest electric field they’ve had thus far), the team had to come up with more innovative solutions.
“Most people don’t realize how much it takes to create rapid power. It’s one thing to trickle charge, but rapid power takes a tremendous amount of power and many don’t do it well.”
To facilitate this, Miller and the team behind Rebelle took to securing green hydrogen, a promising and environmentally friendly form of hydrogen that is produced through a process called electrolysis, which involves splitting water into its constituent elements, Hydrogen (H2) and Oxygen (O2).
Let’s take a quick science breather here:
Through water electrolysis, electricity generated from renewable sources, such as wind, solar, or hydropower, is used to split water (H2O) into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2). This process is done using an electrolyzer, with hydrogen at one end (a cathode, the negative electrode) and oxygen at the other (an anode, the positive electrode). The hydrogen and oxygen gases are then separated in the electrolyzer, with the hydrogen gas collected and then stored for use as energy. In this case, hydrogen is used in fuel cell batteries by combining with oxygen from the air to generate electricity that then powers an electric motor. No greenhouse gas emissions are created through this process, making green hydrogen, well, truly green. In fact, the only byproduct is water.
Whew, now we’re back.
You might be asking yourself, ‘Hey, this is great, why don’t we have this everywhere?’ Miller: “So we’ve had issues getting access to hydrogen. A lot of people think hydrogen is easy to get. Well, turns out it’s not.”
Miller and her team spent countless hours calling presidents of companies and asking anyone from those at small start-ups to higher-ups at Boeing how to obtain enough green hydrogen to power five electric vehicles throughout the Rebelle Rally’s eight days. The calls that were returned mentioned either obscene financial numbers, less than-promised quantities of hydrogen, inferior storage vessels, or all of the above.
Cold calling was only one step of the equation: Miller and Rebelle organizers had to hit the books, creating graphs of multiple factors like the power demands of each EV, ambient temperature, and elevation. “It’s every type of temperature, it’s every type of terrain, every altitude. We will go from 10 feet above sea level to 10,000 feet.”
“We start looking at the numbers of the Rally: the terrain, temperature, the hill, the climbing, the descending, and I literally have to put that out on a graph, and then figure out where to put the remote rapid power so that we can figure out exactly how much power we’re really going to need for the whole base camp,” Miller explained. “And Renewable Innovations has been able to help us map that out and [we’ve gotten] to know these electric vehicles and what they take.”
“We have 800 kilograms of green hydrogen. It’s a lot of hydrogen, but it’s what it takes just to power these electric vehicles remotely and rapidly and to power the base camp as our backup to get down the road,” said Miller, who explained an event organizer had to drive to Georgia to retrieve the hydrogen, stored in type IV hydrogen vessels made from polymeric liner, the lightest commercially-available hydrogen storage solution yet.
“For the whole, that’ll last the entire rally,” Miller exclaimed cautiously. “But I have to tell you that hydrogen trucks really aren’t quite ready. We’ve been working with all the different companies. But it’s getting there. So over the next few years, more green hydrogen plants are coming online in the country. And that’s going to be great because how do you create tons and tons of power? So it’s pretty interesting.”
Miller wasn’t the only person raving over the use of green hydrogen to power EVs. Ford Motor Company engineers Hether Lee Fedullo and Peter Schultz were both in attendance during the Rebelle Rally’s prologue to check out the never-before-seen Ford Mustang Mach-E Rally ahead of its 2024 consumer debut.
“It’s really exciting to see it in this kind of environment. I’ve worked on the Mach-E since it was a concept, so I’ve seen this whole journey of the product,” said Fedullo, who is a Vehicle Dynamics Supervisor on not only the Mach-E but the Ford Escape, Kuga, Corsair, and other programs. “Now seeing it in an early environment is really exciting. New space, just opening it up to more customers to see what the vehicle can do and see how you can have fun with it.”
“It’s built for the dirt. We’re really excited to be here at the Rebelle Rally and show the world what this car can do,” said Schultz, who works in EV Program Management on the Mach-E Rally team. “We’re taking it off the street and onto the unbeaten path.”
Fedullo and Schultz were speaking with Mach-E driver Bailey Campbell and her navigating counterpart, Kaleigh Miller, upon their return from the Rebelle Rally prologue, a pretrial dry run of what teams can expect for the rest of the rally. Check out our previous coverage to learn more about Campbell and Miller as well as other women competing under Ford here. Also, read about the fun we had in the Ford F-150 Raptor R here.
The engineers were looking for “anything that they’re willing to share, to be honest, because we’re not out there, they are,” said Fedullo. “It’s actually just better to hear what they have to say. They have a lot of experience in these kinds of environments and I’m wanting to hear what their thoughts are on this vehicle versus other things that they’ve driven so that we can always look for ways to improve, get better, and be more competitive.”
Both engineers touched upon the lack of EV charging infrastructure in the United States. There are currently only about 150,000 EV chargers in the country, serving more than 2.1 million EVs on the roads today. Only a quarter of those publicly available chargers are Level 3 fast chargers. Experts believe the country will need to install more than a million Level 3 chargers by 2030 to catch up with demand. However, both engineers were also cautiously optimistic about the country’s direction as EVs become more mainstream.
“That’s where all the innovation’s happening. Electrification is the future,” Schultz said. “Progress is a process and Ford is doing a lot with their BlueOval Charge Network, and as time goes on and as the technology continues to evolve, we’ll get more range, batteries will start getting cheaper and we’ll just continue to develop all this technology.”
For Fedullo, it’s personal. The engineer has been driving a Mach-E for the last few years, and she said life’s gotten easier.
“I’ve just noticed over the last couple of years how much easier it is, with my comfort level to just the infrastructure. At least in the Michigan area, where I drive, it is a lot better. I feel like year after year we’re making great strides. So I just hope that customers will be open-minded to driving this technology and checking it out,” Fedullo said. “There’s just a lot of really cool things about EVs and the way you interact with them, from the power and performance to the quietness and some extent, the refinement of them compared to some of the equivalent in price gas vehicles. It’s really exciting.”
Fedullo concluded that the Mach-E and electric vehicles in general were best suited for the rally and this environment.
“From a rally standpoint, I think for me, it’s really exciting to be in these natural spaces and know that you’re leaving a small eco-footprint. I know there’s charging and infrastructure and things that need to happen for this car to be here,” she said. “But it is operating relatively cleanly when it’s out here.”
“It’s very quiet. It’s not scaring animals away and making all kinds of really loud noises,” Fedullo ended. “But it is really like a serene feeling, the outdoor nature and driving as fast as you can drive this car and hearing the woods, knowing that you are making a very small footprint where you are.”