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Charging in the desert: How Optima/Clarios brings clean EV charging to grueling environments

Range anxiety. It’s a term and concept that is getting more ink these days as more buyers in America purchase electric vehicles. It works well for many owners of EVs when they have a charging unit at home or fast-charging stations located nearby where can power their vehicle to meet their basic motoring needs. But, when it comes to travel with an EV, there are stories that put fear into the hearts of the hearty! And then, there’s off-roading and overlanding; both have grown in popularity and, although there are a few more EV, HEV and other offerings that are being touted for the backcountry, it’s an avenue that remains largely off-limits to owners of these vehicles, due to the lack of charging units in the backcountry.

Here’s something cool, however. Optima and its parent company Clarios have created a clever and unique opportunity to encourage EV owners to get off-the-grid and play in the desert–without range anxiety! In fact, for the second year, EV and hybrid owners were invited to the 2nd annual Optima Unplugged Powered by Clarios guided drive, as a part of the legendary King of the Hammers (KOH) event, in Johnson Valley, California. The battery companies said it was the largest gathering of off-road electric vehicle enthusiasts ever that participated in the off-road tour this year.

Optima Unplugged expanded its event to two-days, thereby giving participants the opportunity to register their EVs or HEVs to experience the most iconic trails in Johnson Valley and stay overnight in an all-new 10- acre, private camping area– the Optima Oasis at The Forty. The tour, set up as a poker run and led by Optima Batteries’ ambassadors, offered an entry-level off-road adventure for beginner drivers with limited off-road experience with no vehicle modifications required, as well as a more advanced ride for enthusiasts looking for a bit more of a challenge. The purchase of a two-day pass provided access to unlimited EV charging, camping that included restrooms and showers, evening entertainment and catered meals.

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Photo credit: Sue Mead

Helping to make this event successful for all EV and HEV participants, Optima provided 10 Level 2 chargers and four Level 3 chargers that were powered by hydrogen supplied by industry experts at Renewable Innovations. These were located at Optima’s private 10-acre gated facility and were free of charge for any EV/HEV vehicle attending the KOH, with industry leaders on hand to answer questions and discuss the future of sustainable off-roading. The entire Optima Oasis was also powered by Renewable Innovations’ zero-carbon green renewable energy via solar and hydrogen, as Optima and Clarios continue to push for innovation in the off-road community and hope to move the needle toward more remote off-road events featuring EVs and HEVs, alongside their ICE counterparts.

“This is the second year we’ve done Unplugged, and we were thrilled to have 65 vehicles and about 100 guests,“ said Tom Downie, VP of Communications at Clarios. “We had a mix of vehicles this year– with two Tesla Cybertrucks and three Ford Lightning stock pickup trucks– and a large contingent of members of the Rivian club, who were with us for the second year; their members are really enthusiastic about getting out here in the desert and they actually parked with us this year. There were two educational programs to talk about safety and Tread Lightly! and how important it is for the community to make sure that it respects the environment while we’re out here having fun — so overall it was a great experience to give people a little bit education, plus a little bit of confidence and for us to help influence some sustainably for the future. I think it’s only a matter of time before people know that there can be an environmental impact from off-roading, but educating the EV community, who are also in many cases staunch advocates for the environment, makes sense to let them experience this and help us preserve it for the future”, added Downie.

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That EV9 in the back seems far from home. Photo credit: Sue Mead

The 2024 Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by Optima Batteries provides a forum for the battery companies that champion not only electric and hybrid vehicles but also vehicles with ICE and hydrogen power and support a number of the top off-road racers at the KOH. Optima has been a sponsor of KOH, the largest and toughest off-road competition venue in United States, since 2016. This year, it attracted close to 80,000 racers, aftermarket companies, fans and other participants that took place over 18 days. It can appear to be an amalgam of the Baja 1000, Dakar Rally, extreme rock crawling and Monster Truck competitions mixed in the blender with Burning Man and Mad Max.

“Clarios is the world’s largest manufacturing provider of low voltage batteries,” said Tom Downie, VP of Communications at Clarios, the parent company of Optima. “We make more than 150 million batteries a year—in fact, one in three cars worldwide are powered by one of the batteries that we produce. Plus, every hour we recycle 8,000 batteries. At Clarios, the recycling comes from a commitment to sustainability and that’s one of the driving forces behind us as we look to the future of our industry and where we’re going. Last year, we won a World Sustainability Award for being one of the best examples of a circular economy in the world.”

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Photo credit: Sue Mead

“The company is committed to supporting competitors who are using ‘ice’ engines, as well as to support the breadth and scope of the EV world,” offered Downie, as we participated in events at the KOH. “There are a few reasons: first, we’re trying to help people understand that it doesn’t matter what the powertrain is—ice, hybrid, EV– every one of these vehicles needs a low-voltage network to power the systems on the vehicle and this is a great opportunity for us to reinforce that point. We’ve also found there’s an opportunity to help on the sustainability front –in motorsports, there are a lot of internal combustion vehicles at KOH and, if you’re an EV owner there’s really no way you can come out and experience this with your EV, so what we’ve done is to install this charging support station to allow people to come out and actually experience of the ‘Hammers’ and to get their vehicles off-road. In many cases, it’s the first time for them to be off-road, so we’ve paired them up with some of our professional drivers to help give them some pointers and the confidence to actually get out here with their vehicle, which is something that they would probably never could or would on their own,” enthused Downie.

“Off roading and events like KOH have grown over the last decade to have more than 80,000 folks come, whether they’re competitors or visitors or viewers, but it’s a test bed and now there’s EV racing! I’ve experienced how much fun we can all have with all the different ambassadors (the Optima and Clarios contingent of competitors) but it’s important to share the educational component and provide an opportunity for us to help advocate for all—whether it’s an electric future or the electric that we see right now, and whether it’s the mass adoption or the greater electrification of vehicles to things like steer by wire or brake by wire– it’s a great opportunity to continue to advance technology.”

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Photo provided by: Sue Mead

Editor’s note: Sue Mead is an off-road journalist with bylines in prestigious publications including Four Wheel Magazine as one of its first female evaluators. She’s also a pro behind the wheel having competed in — and won — many off-road events including winning Dakar in 2011 in a Ford Raptor. She is a member of the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame. 

Written by Sue Mead

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