Tech research on electric vehicles first of its kind

Pingen Chen, an assistant professor in Tech’s Mechanical Engineering, is pictured in front of a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle which is similar to those what will be tested in rural areas of the Upper Cumberland.

COOKEVILLE – A unique research project that focuses on electric vehicles in rural communities in the Upper Cumberland is being conducted by Tennessee Tech and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The DOE has approved $779,823 for the project “Developing an EV Demonstration Testbed in the Upper Cumberland Region of Tennessee, an Economy Distressed Rural Region.” The study, which is the first of its kind, is to develop a rural electric vehicle testbed to demonstrate and evaluate the applications of electric vehicles over a diverse range of activities serving a rural and largely economically distressed Upper Cumberland region. Previous research has been based solely on urban and suburban use of electric vehicles.

“We are one of the first to implement electric vehicles in a rural community,” said Pingen Chen, an assistant professor in Tech’s mechanical engineering. “When you look at rural areas, there are no charging stations. It prevents our rural communities from using electric vehicles. Our study will present a good example of how many charging stations are needed in rural areas, including the Upper Cumberland.”

Besides Tech, other research partners include the University of Texas at Austin, Nissan North America, Lightning Systems, East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, Seven States Power Corporation, ChargePoint and the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency. The total budget of the project is $1,559,686 with the DOE funding almost half and the rest coming from the project team. The research will consist of a small electric vehicle fleet including three Nissan Leafs, one plug-in light-duty truck, and one battery electric transit bus along with an EV charging station network. 

“This is a team project and the DOE is supporting us with a significant amount of money,” said Chen. “We are going to use this money and the resources to develop complete charging stations and develop a charging station network open to the public.”

The project objectives are to address the challenges of adopting electric vehicles into rural regions. The proposal integrates EV demonstration into the newly formed vehicle engineering program at Tech. This newly integrated degree program educates engineers to use the latest technologies to design and manufacture modern vehicles, including electric ones. 

The Upper Cumberland counties included in the research are Putnam, Cannon, Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Fentress, Jackson, Macon, Overton, Pickett, Smith, Warren, White and Van Buren.

“We try to give our rural communities this experience of using electric vehicles to understand the cost and usefulness of using electric vehicles,” said Chen. “Very few are being used because there are almost no charging stations in the rural areas. The lack of charging stations is limiting the use of electic vehicles. It’s the same situation in other rural areas in the United States.”

The charging stations will be part of the first phase of the project, which runs through 2020. The second phase in 2021 and will include electric vehicle demonstration, data collection analysis, and information exchange, outreach and education activities. The project wraps up in 2022 with the deployment of five vehicles to different fleets, along with public meetings and forums with the public and private fleet partners, government agencies and the local communities.

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