For two teams at the Rebelle Rally, range is more than a marketer’s selling point or a hypothetical limit on potential road trips. Volkswagen and Rivian have both brought EVs to the 1,400 mile off-road navigational rally that has drivers pilot their trucks through the harsh Mojave.
VW has brought an ID.4 piloted by Mercedes Lilienthal and navigated by Emily Windf, fully kitted with a pop-art wrap design, improved control arms, OZ Rally wheels wrapped in Geolander A/Ts, and a medley of skid plates and underbody protection, all envisioned and installed by Tanner Foust Racing and Rhys Millen Racing. This isn’t VW’s first off-road event with the ID.4—they previously entered one in the NORRA Mexican 1000 rally earlier in 2021—but it is the manufacturer’s first entry into the grueling Rebelle.
Rivian took a different approach for their entry to the Rebelle. The R1T entered in the rally is bone stock, with nothing adorning it other than some spare tires and smiley-face stickers. This is Rivian’s second time entering an R1T in the Rebelle; last year’s entry was the first pre-production R1T the company had ever built. The driver and navigator of the Rivian are no novices, either—Emme Hall at the wheel and Rebecca Donaghe at the map have run every single Rebelle Rally ever held, and each time they have done it as a team. They have won twice—once in a bone-stock Jeep Wrangler, and once in a Rolls-Royce Cullinan—and this is their second time behind the wheel of Rivian’s entry.
When I talked to Hall and Donaghe, who have competed in the Rebelle with almost every form of fuel available—gas, diesel, and electric—they explained that piloting an EV is not all that different from driving a gas car despite the intense distances and drain on the battery. Competitors, no matter what powertrain drives their wheels, are not allowed to refuel throughout the day, adding a challenging endurance dimension to the already complicated task of navigating through an entire state with only a 1:100,000 scale map. Donaghe explained that her navigator role is made slightly more challenging when guiding the Rivian, because she is constantly doing back-of-the-envelope calculations on projected range for the expected terrain ahead. Loose sand or steep hills will drain the battery much more rapidly—and may call for a different route, depending on the remaining battery life—whereas downhill stretches of hard-packed dirt might give an opportunity for a range-extending regenerative coasting session. Still, the team told me, they’ve had similar concerns about running out of range in the past in an ICE car—when setting out in their (winning) V12 Rolls-Royce Cullinan—so the pair are no strangers to methodically planning out a route that won’t leave them on E.
Both Rivians may technically be pre-production, but the one the team will pilot this year is a production-quality built. There are a handful of differences between this truck and the one they drove through the desert last year, and they all make for an easier time managing the truck and the route this time around. For one, the internal cabin UI is all finalized and polished this time; there’s no more accidentally turning on the navigator’s seat heaters in the middle of the scorching Mojave, like Donaghe had to suffer through last year. Otherwise, Hall and Donaghe are prepared for a run similar to last year’s—and they clearly came prepared. As I write this story on Monday morning at the dawn of Stage 3, they’re third overall out of 52 teams.
Overall, the Rebelle prides itself on making it possible for EVs to enter. There are seven total entries this year in the Electrified designation, encompassing both PHEVs and EVs, and this is the first year with multiple full EVs for the event. There are slight rule variations for EV and PHEV refueling—for example, here at the start of Stage 3, the ID4 and R1T will be allowed to come back to base camp for 45 minutes of charging, and the PHEV teams will be allowed an extra few gallons of gas given their smaller tank size—but the most logistically challenging part of running a group of EVs through the desert is of course charging them. That’s where the Mobile Energy Command semi truck comes in.
The Renewable Innovations Mobile Energy Command, or MEC-H2EV, is a 53 foot long semi-trailer powered entirely by hydrogen fuel cells with multiple DC fast chargers on board. It can provide 500 kW of DC rapid charging and can generate 1/4 MW with its fuel cells; as a result, the EVs are still zero-emissions even way out in the most remote stretches of desert, and the EV teams can recharge back at base camp when the other teams refuel every evening. This truck, combined with Renewable Innovations’ other Mobile Energy Command—a solar generator with twin sun-following “flower” arrays that generate 50 kW of peak, consistent power—mean that the entire base camp that supports 52 teams and dozens more staff members and all the EV refueling operations on site are zero emissions, despite the fact that it’s miles upon miles from any town with as much as a 110V outlet.
Time will tell throughout the next five stages of the event how the EVs will fare in a stacked field, but it’s clear Rebelle has committed to ensuring they can put up a fight and encourage even more EV entries in the future. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to keep up with the Rivian and VW teams to see how they do as the temps climb and the dunes start calling.