Tech draws region’s first electric shuttle bus to campus

Tech faculty and students are pictured with community leaders at the ribbon cutting for the region’s first electric shuttle vehicle.
Tech faculty and students are pictured with community leaders at the ribbon cutting for the region’s first electric shuttle vehicle. Participants' names are listed below. 

The first fully electric shuttle vehicle outside of an urban center in Tennessee has landed on the campus of Tennessee Tech University, thanks to a team of faculty and graduate students led by Pingen Chen, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering at Tech.

The shuttle’s unveiling is the culmination of a three-year project between Tech and the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency (UCHRA), which owns the vehicle, with support from the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Vehicle Technologies Office. 

UCHRA and Tech plan to use the electric shuttle for a variety of uses, including providing on-campus transportation for Tech students, faculty and guests over the coming weeks before eventually transitioning the vehicle for use throughout Cookeville.

Chen says that, at times, supply chain issues and other delays associated with the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the project’s completion, but the university and its partners persisted. 

“We are proud to have the very first electric shuttle bus anywhere outside of a major Tennessee city. Working with UCHRA, we fought through a lot of challenges and, in the end, showed our persistence and resiliency in making it happen,” said Chen. 

Chen and UCHRA say that, in addition to being more environmentally friendly, riders can expect a quieter travel experience on the electric shuttle bus compared to gas-powered vehicles. The electric shuttle is also projected to have a lower total cost of ownership, which includes not only the up-front purchase cost but also operational and maintenance costs. 

A dedicated advocate for sustainability on campus, Chen and his students already helped procure roughly a dozen electric and hybrid cars for the university as part of a free two-week test drive program and outreach effort serving economically distressed regions of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio through Tech’s Rural Reimagined initiative. 

Both Tech and UCHRA aim to continue bringing more electric vehicles to the region. 

“Thanks to Dr. Chen’s consistent approach, we made this work. We have finally seen this project come to fruition and I am so excited,” said Holly Montooth, UCHRA transportation director, in remarks at a recent ribbon cutting for the vehicle. “We don’t plan to stop here. We want to continue. I'm looking forward to seeing our partnerships grow and they're only going to continue to do so thanks to the commitment everyone here has to not only becoming better stewards of our environment, but also making sure that we are being as efficient as possible.”

TDOT explained that it will use data on this shuttle to inform its electric vehicle efforts in other areas of the state.

“This project is going to collect data and information that we will be able to share with rural transit agencies that serve the rest of Tennessee,” said Kaitlyn McClanahan, transit manager for TDOT. “Strategic implementation of rural electric vehicles is an area where Tennessee can lead. The Upper Cumberland region debuting this technology is a big step forward.”

The shuttle was outfitted by the California-based Phoenix Motorcars and will be kept outside Foundation Hall, the site of one of two electric vehicle charging stations on campus. 

This is the latest in a series of projects led by Tech faculty and students promoting clean energy solutions. In recent weeks, Tech was awarded a grant from NASA for research on zero-emission commercial aircraft, as well as a separate grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for research on repurposing coal and coal waste to develop advanced conductors. 

(Photo: From left: Mark Farley, UCHRA executive director, Lizzy Gaviria, grants analyst for TDEC Office of Energy Programs, Kaitlyn McClanahan, transit manager for TDOT, Holly Montooth, UCHRA transportation director, Pingen Chen, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Tennessee Tech, Riley Sparks, UCHRA fleet operations manager, Jason Carlin, UCHRA fleet operations mechanic, Carl Pinkert, interim vice president for research at Tennessee Tech, Maxavier Lamantia, graduate student research assistant at Tennessee Tech, and Cody Innis, graduate student research assistant at Tennessee Tech). 


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