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Truck conversion illuminates new perspectives

the electric truck in the garage

Dr. Jeff Tang discusses the impetus for converting a gasoline-powered truck to electric power.

At first glance, the Chevrolet S-10 looks like nothing more than your everyday pickup truck. But what lies beneath is something much smoother, quieter and healthier than your normal Chevy—it’s electric.

Students and professors at the JMU Alternative Fuel Lab worked with staff from Shenandoah National Park to convert and old Chevrolet S-10 into a fully electric truck.

“We are playing with the right types of technologies…electrics are where the people are at now, it is where the industry is,” said Dr. Jeff Tang, assistant professor of integrated science and technology.

JMU approached SNP about the conversion after getting a grant from the University-National Park Energy Partnership Program, which is administered by former JMU professor Jamie Winebrake.

The team surveyed park workers to determine what the truck would be used for, what terrain it would traverse, how much weight the car would be carrying and other factors in order to customize the vehicle for its intended use rather than what JMU students simply imagined.

“Some of us might have gone for flashier batteries with a little more range that was a little more modern, but that is not what they needed,” said Tang. “They needed something that goes 10 to 15 mph and something that works. The truck suits their purpose.”

Tang said the main purpose of the project was not the conversation itself, but rather the opportunity to study perceptions and uses of electric vehicles.

Tang, who holds masters and doctoral degrees in history from the University of Pennsylvania, teaches classes on the social context of science. His job at the AFV is to help students understand the implications of new technology from economic, political and consumer perspectives.

For example, Tang noted that the converted truck makes virtually no noise when running, a fact most people find as a positive improvement. But even relatively small changes can make a huge difference for some groups of people.

“When we convert to electric, all of a sudden you have a vehicle that does not make any noise. What about blind people who are crossing the road or are not expecting it? I want our students to think about some of those types of issues,” Tang said.

“To me energy is the issue of the day. There will not be one thing that will replace oil, it will be a number if things. If you focus on just one perspective, you are rolling the dice.”

Published November 2009