Tennessee Tech is driving autonomous and electric vehicle research

Across the automotive industry, there have been two main factors driving innovation over the past few years: How do we make cars safer and more efficient?

In May 2021, a wide swath of states across the South and East, including Tennessee, experiences fuel shortages and upticks in gas prices when a major pipeline fell victim to a ransomware attack.

Constructed during the early ’60s, this once-visionary energy superhighway stretching from Houston, Texas, to New York Harbor had been the largest privately funded infrastructure project in U.S. history. It’s still instrumental in delivering more than 105 million gallons of fuel daily.

However, much has changed since the era of tail fins and chrome more than a half-century ago. Nowadays, EV charging stations are cropping up in big cities where you may expect them, as well as places you may not like rural Tennessee.

Over the past five years, Tennessee Tech has been exploring innovations in the auto industry, starting with the communities around its Cookeville campus and beyond. 

Shifting gears toward autonomous and electric vehicles

From self-driving cars to electric vehicles, Tennessee Tech students are learning how to build the cars of the future — which will be smarter, sleeker and possibly greener. Since arriving at Tennessee Tech in 2016, Pingen Chen, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering, has been inspiring students to learn about the auto industry.

Chen established the Automotive Powertrain and Emissions Control Laboratory to explore all facets of next-gen car design.

With changing times, the scope of his research has also shifted. Earlier in his career, he had worked with vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. For him, electric vehicles (EVs) have become major players in the industry.

“My goal now is to understand how an electric vehicle can impact society through fuel-saving and diverse fuel resources,” said Chen. 

Developing transformative tech for the auto industry

At Tennessee Tech, Chen established the Automotive Powertrain and Emissions Control Laboratory to explore all facets of next-gen car design, including modeling, optimizing energy-efficient mobility, and alternative and renewable fuel sources.

Students learn about everything from conventional to hybrid and electric powertrains, as well as emissions control systems and EV ecosystems. Their research also extends into automated and connected vehicles.  

The school’s vehicle engineering program is unique in the state of Tennessee and the nation at large. “[We’re] developing a workforce to serve the rapidly changing automotive sectors,” said Chen.

While it’s forward-looking, students are still learning the skills applicable in the conventional vehicle sector. At this pivotal point in the industry’s history, it offers the ideal balance of old and new technology.

With a cutting-edge education, Tennessee Tech students will not get left in the dust.

Empowering student researchers to drive change

Students in Chen’s lab are working on different projects, including automatic braking, adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist for autonomous vehicles. Along with studying complex mechanical engineering, hands-on experiences, such as soldering and crimping wires, make the theory work in real life and on the road.

There’s also the wow factor of seeing hard work pay off when a car they’ve built drives without a physical foot on the pedal. In contrast to the standard cruise control already found in many vehicles, they’re working on adaptive cruise control using inter-vehicle communication, an advanced feature enabling cars to share their positions across different parameters.

Putting EV tech to work in the local communities

Beyond the lab, Chen’s research is already focused on real-world changes. The school has spearheaded a network of charging stations in the Upper Cumberland region to break down barriers restricting EV ownership in rural areas. They have also installed EV stations on the campus and the surrounding counties.

“Our future transportation system will become smarter because of the connectivity and automation, and that can help reduce the fatalities as well as saving fuel,” said Chen. “We want to help the best way we can.”

To learn more about studying at Tennessee Tech, visit https://www.tntech.edu/.

Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.

Industry Automotive