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The great sustainable race: Around the globe without fossil fuels

Dutch entrepreneurs create a challenge that's a modern-day vision of Jules Verne's classic: circumnavigate the globe without the use of fossil fuels.

"Ah, Mr Gates," says the mustachioed gent in the wood-paneled library. "A moment of your time, please. I'd like to talk to you about Monsieur Jules Verne. Cup of tea?"

And so he lays down an extraordinary challenge, daring Bill Gates, Oracle's Larry Ellison, Nick Woodman of GoPro and several others of their ilk to leave a "lasting legacy and help propel humanity into a sustainable future." And how can they do this? Why, by supporting a new 80-day race around the world — but this time using technology free of fossil fuels and combustion engines.

The man behind the idea is Frank Manders, co-founder and general director of 80 Day Race, who is very clear the idea of racing teams across eight legs around the globe using only renewable fuels is no mere fiction, even if he did come up with idea after watching Jackie Chan's film of the Jules Verne classic in 2010.

The following day, his partner wrote on Twitter: "Going around the world sustainably in 80 days, that seems a new challenge for 7 adventures, count me in!" To which Frank replied: "Yes, great idea. Maybe we should turn it into a competition?!?"

This was not entirely new territory for Manders — he previously has driven the route of the Paris-Dakar rally, steered a tuk-tuk across Rajasthan and taken a Tesla electric car from Amsterdam to London and Oslo before returning, and all in the days before Superchargers. At the time, his hobby was to organize charity races from Rotterdam to Rome where teams' only fuel was cooking oil from restaurants they stopped at along the way.

But the 80-day race is much grander in scale. Starting in London, Paris or Rotterdam, teams would head to Istanbul or Ankara in Turkey. The next leg would be split in two, with teams racing to the coast before catching boats to Dubai or more likely Mumbai in India, where the second half of the leg takes them to Delhi or Chennai. From there, the route goes over to China, before teams are transported across the Pacific to Vancouver or Seattle. The race continues along the length of the Americas with stops in California, Central America and Santiago, Chile, before hopping across the Andes to Brazil or Argentina. Finally, teams once again are carried across the Atlantic before restarting for a race to the finish from Madrid, Barcelona or Monaco.

The rules are simple: no combustion engines and no non-renewable fuels. "This rules out the weird possibility someone might use a nuclear submarine," Manders said. Second, a maximum of 120kWh of power storage is allowed on board to prevent a truck hoisting gallons of hydrogen that drives around the world in one go. Finally, vehicles need to be legal and obey speed limits and other national laws. Aside from that, the rules are pretty much open to interpretation.

"We don't know what people will come up with," Manders admitted. One team of Dutch students, fresh from competing in the World Solar Challenge, has entered a battery-powered motorbike. Another likely entrant, a U.S. chief executive, plans to modify a Tesla Model X. If budgets allow, Manders even sees potential for solar-powered planes, similar to the Swiss-built Solar Impulse, soon to undertake its own round-the-world challenge. "There is a leg going from Santiago to Brazil," he said. "You can go across the Andes, through Argentina and up to Brazil or you can go over the Andes across part of the Amazon jungle and make a huge shortcut. So there are places where it makes sense to use even a slow plane."

Manders has held talks with a number of car-makers who seem keen for their technology to be featured, but less interested in entering a team of their own. The plan for host cities to hold conferences and exhibitions aimed at companies as well as the general public seems to have piqued interest.

"The idea is show and sell, not show and tell," he explained. "That is what's missing from many of these sustainable development conferences. We are in Istanbul, we just arrived from London — why are you talking about range anxiety? Here's the technology, the partners are here, let's make a deal."

Alongside accelerating sales of already existing technology, the 80 Day Race aims to inspire clean tech innovation and to bring forward new low carbon transport solutions — something Manders feels motorsport is failing to achieve. "The first premise of motorsports was always what you develop in motorsports was something that would emerge in [production] vehicles 10, 15 years down the line," he said. "What motorsport is now focusing on is improving fossil fuel technology that is in effect going to be phased out over a relatively short period of time. I think motorsports is definitely lacking in the development of new technology that will trickle down for everyday use at this stage."

In its bid for credibility, 80 Day Race has signed up a range of ambassadors, including Spanish adventurer and entrepreneur Albert Bosch, who is trying to complete the Paris-Dakar rally in an electric vehicle; British actor and e-mobility specialist Robert Llewellyn; electric aviation pioneer Erik Lindbergh; and three-time Dakar Rally winner and former race director Hubert Auriol. Some of these ambassadors are also readying teams, Manders hinted.

But there is still much to do to meet the planned April 2016 start date, an aspiration Manders admitted "gets less realistic by the month." The main issue is finalizing host cities, which then will enable organizers to sort out the accompanying exhibitions and the troublesome, but necessary filming permits — all teams will be accompanied by a TV crew with the race produced by the same people who filmed Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's 2004 Long Way Round voyage. Sponsors also are being sought, hence the appeals to today's business pioneers — Gates, Ellison, Woodman and company.

Manders accepts many will be skeptical about the idea. But he pointed out the whole premise of Verne's novel is that no one believes Phileas Fogg can set off from the Reform Club in London and return 80 days later having circumnavigated the globe.

"Everyone in the book is betting against him — and it's exactly the same now," Manders said. "A huge amount of people always resist change because they fear the unknown and think only of limitations rather than possibilities. Pioneers distinguish themselves by taking that leap.

"So yes, it's going to be difficult. Yes, it's going to be a dream — but so was reaching the source of the Nile; so was getting to the top of Mount Everest."

People know low emission cars are cheap to run and better for the environment, but the sector is crying out for something truly exciting to rally around. Perhaps the 80 Day Race can be that lightning rod. Over to you, Bill.

This article originally appeared at BusinessGreen.

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