Location: Cookeville, TN
Fleet Type: Medium-duty All-electric Shuttle

 

Narrative

In 2020, Dr. Pingen Chen of Tennessee Technological University (TTU) won funding from DOE for the “Developing an EV Demonstration Testbed in the Upper Cumberland Region of Tennessee, an Economically Distressed Region” proposal (called the “Testbed” Project for short). Dr. Chen has become a tremendously valued asset to Drive Electric TN (DET) and to Tennessee in general through the multitude of excellent projects he has applied for and been awarded that are bringing a variety of electric vehicle (EV) education and engagement and EVSE installation opportunities to Tennessee communities and corridors!

DET (through the East TN Clean Fuels Coalition) was a project partner for multiple elements in the Testbed Project. Significant elements of the project included a) acquiring and loaning multiple EVs out to Upper Cumberland (UC) area citizens to allow them to have first-hand EV experiences, b) getting eight Level 2 charging sites locations throughout the UC (which is a 14-county region in the upper-central part of the state, shown at right), and c) acquiring and putting in use an all-electric passenger shuttle. The project ran from 2021 through 2023.

For the passenger shuttle work, Dr. Chen engaged the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency’s (UCHRA’s) Public Transportation division. In the early days of the project, Dr. Chen worked with the Transportation Director Becky Harris to develop the plans for using the EV (which is a 2022 Ford E450 that was converted to all-electric by Phoenix Motorcars). Harris retired in 2021 and Holly Montooth took over as the UCHRA’s transportation director, and Montooth picked up the partnership and work, joining in the project conversations about the acquisition timeline, the planning for charging the shuttle, and otherwise being involved to fully implement the shuttle into their operations. 

Jonathan Overly of DET, second from left, stands with (L-R) UCHRA Transportation Director Holly Montooth, Fleet Operations Manager Riley Sparks, and ASE Master Technician Joey Bitter. On this day in March 2023, Overly visited the team to see the EV in person and learn how the ramp-up to using the electric shuttle was going.

ETCF provided some assistance with charging discussions and suggestions. This was somewhat complicated by the fact that the shuttle was equipped with a CHAdeMO-type DCFC inlet connection (in addition to a J1772 Level 2 charging inlet). However, there were already two CHAdeMO charging sites in the area:  a) an Electrify America DCFC site at a local Walmart, and b) a ChargePoint DCFC unit that had been installed on the edge of the TTU campus through the project.

The shuttle was received in March 2023. UCHRA transportation staff needed to be trained on the operation, maintenance, and safety features of the new shuttle. It took a few months to get all the kinks worked out, and ETCF helped UCHRA engage Phoenix to get all the needed information and manuals on shuttle operation. In summer 2023, UCHRA started using the shuttle on a route that circumnavigates the TTU campus multiple times per day. UCHRA Fleet Operations Manager Riley Sparks notes, “We weren’t sure it would be able to run routes the whole day – which is roughly a nine-hour day – without needing a charge along the way, but so far it has been able to do so.” Riley adds, “The driver experience is important for us as well, and the current driver has been pleased with its operation and surprised with the quiet and smooth way it drives.”

Several photos of the shuttle – which is handicap accessible – are above. Dr. Chen and Montooth did a great job on the multiple logos and graphics that were placed all around the shuttle.

As they get better data on the shuttle’s distance capabilities on different routes, the UCHRA and Montooth have plans to utilize it on other routes they run both in Putnam County (where Cookeville is located) and potentially in some of the surrounding counties that the UCHRA serves.

Outputs & Outcomes

The project overall produced numerous outputs including having over 500 UC-resident test drives in any of the several Nissan Leafs (as well as a converted plug-in hybrid pickup truck) that were available for one-week test drives. The shuttle itself is an output realized in the project, but it is providing emissions-free operation on the campus and is the first campus shuttle to do so in Tennessee. The shuttle produces less criteria pollutant emissions (like particulate matter and nitrogen oxides) as well as less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the Cookeville community has a local example of fleet-based, electrified transportation.

On the outcomes side, students that now ride the electric shuttle are exposed to less criteria pollutants, that can impact their health. The bus driver is also now exposed to less emissions and is operating a vehicle that is quieter so they can hear more of what is going on inside the bus and around them in traffic and in the city (the TTU campus lies within the City of Cookeville). What’s more, the lessons learned in Cookeville and the surrounding areas can inform other universities and colleges both in Tennessee and in other states so that the project can be replicated, further positively impacting the health of more U.S. citizens and students. 

Best Practices & Lessons Learned

  1. When new technology is used in vehicles, the oversight and maintenance staff as well as the drivers have to learn to use it. Training should come from the OEM or conversion company, and any manuals for their operations should be acquired when the vehicles are acquired.
  2. Include any staff that might operate, drive, or maintain the EV in training as early as can be scheduled. If virtual training can take place before the onsite training, take advantage of it (or request it from the provider).
  3. Select shorter routes for new EVs to test their real-world driving range before putting them on longer routes. It also helps to have a certain number of miles on the vehicles (several thousand) to ensure that the driving performance shows consistent operation over time.
  4. This is typically done but worth stating – test all of the vehicle’s systems before it is put on the road. Lights, heating or cooling systems, handicap lift systems, the driver’s display, and any outside arms, moving signs or similar should all be checked for repeated, correct operation.

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