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Students Pump Brakes on Gas Guzzlers

Office of Sustainability’s Electric Vehicle Test Drive Event Opens Eyes

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School of Nursing freshman Jacie Hebert test drives the BMW i3 during the Office of Sustainability’s Electric Vehicle Ride and Drive event on South Campus.

By Ed Brennen

Jacie Hebert had never driven an electric vehicle, so when the School of Nursing freshman climbed behind the wheel of a battery-powered, $42,000 BMW i3 and took it for a spin around South Campus, she paid close attention to every little detail.

“I’m so used to gas cars, but this is definitely nice. It’s so quiet,” Hebert said to the BMW rep riding shotgun on her 1.5-mile test drive, which was part of the Office of Sustainability’s first-ever Electric Vehicle Ride and Drive event held September 15 in front of the Allen House.

Co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the event gave students a chance to test drive the latest EVs from BMW, Nissan and Chevrolet, as well as get updates on the university’s expanding EV charging infrastructure. Representatives from Massachusetts Offers Rebates for Electric Vehicles (MOR-EV) were also on hand with information on federal, state and manufacturer incentives.

“It’s cool to have something like this on campus,” senior chemical engineering major Keenan Augustus said after taking a test drive at the event, which is the latest example of the Office of Sustainability’s efforts to promote programs that advance the university’s 2020 Strategic Plan — and Chancellor Jacquie Moloney’s #First90 Initiative.

“When we’re talking about sustainability, there’s a realization on campus that it encompasses everything, from academics and research to transportation and campus operations,” said Ruairi O’Mahony, who was recently named associate director of sustainability. “We want to do everything we can to advance the sustainability mission on campus. Our office is a resource for the entire campus community.”

More than 100 students and campus community members signed up to test drive the EVs during the four-hour event, which was held in conjunction with National Drive Electric Week and the university’s Commuter Appreciation Week. Participants were asked to complete a short survey before and after their test drives to weigh their expectations against their experiences.

Riding in style

Senior mechanical engineering major Jimmy Benedict, who drives a gas-engine car on campus, was impressed by the power of the BMW’s electric engine.

“I didn’t think it was going to be that quick, but it moved,” said Benedict, who also noted the EV’s automatic braking system. “When you take your foot off the accelerator, it puts the brakes on. It recharges the battery that way, which is pretty cool, but it takes some getting used to. It almost felt like a roller coaster.”

Senior chemical engineering major Steven Jacek doesn’t own a car at the moment, but his BMW test drive convinced him to “definitely look electric” when he does buy one down the road.

“I was surprised at how much pickup it had,” Jacek said. “It felt a little choppy at first, a little stop and go, but I think once you get used to it, it’s fine.”

While it wasn’t available for a test drive, Tesla’s Model S was a popular attraction at the event, with students getting behind the wheel to check out the technology on the country’s best-selling plug-in vehicle. Members of the university’s Center for Electric Car and Energy Conversion were also on hand with one of their earliest EV prototypes.

Of the state’s nearly 5 million registered vehicles, only about 5,200 are fully electric or hybrid electric, according to Linda Benevides, director of green business development for the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. She said the goal is to get that number to 300,000 by 2025 — a “heavy lift” that is going to require educating more and more drivers on the environmental and financial benefits of EVs.

“It’s critical to reach students,” said Benevides, who noted that the average age of those applying for EV rebates is 50. “But I’ve talked to students who’ve said they’re never going to own a gasoline car after driving one of these, and that’s just really how the future has to be because at least 40 percent of our greenhouse gasses are from cars.”

The state has sponsored eight ride and drive events this year, but this is the only one on a university campus. Benevides, whose office held its first EV workshop at UMass Lowell’s Inn and Conference Center in 2010, said the university has been instrumental in helping to get the word out.

“UMass Lowell has been a great partner in all of these,” she said as a line 10 students deep waited to take a test drive. “I think the Office of Sustainability here has done a great job promoting this so we could get a lot of people in cars.”