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Alum's electric vehicles class drives UNL students’ interest in alternative power

Tesla test-drive in UNL engineering course

Electrical engineering graduate student Jay Cheng views the battery area of Professor Don Cox's Tesla Roadster in a UNL class on electrical vehicles.

test-driving the Tesla in UNL engineering class

Senior Kathleen Gegner and grad student Fabio Parigi, both electrical engineering students at UNL, test drive the Tesla Roadster owned by their Electric Vehicles course instructor, EE alumnus Don Cox

Don Cox, ’59 B.S. and ’60 M.S. ELEC, gets the wheels turning for students in the UNL class he teaches, ELEC 498/898, Sec. 004—Electric Vehicles. On Wednesday afternoons, the learning shifts from a Nebraska Hall classroom to a nearby parking lot, where Cox’s sleek, “radiant red” Tesla Roadster awaits.

After initial oohs and ahhs, tours begin at the trunk—where the car’s batteries, power electronics and motor reside. Then, if they wish, students take turns driving the car. After a five-minute loop around campus, the drivers return with what Cox calls “the Tesla smile”—evident on electrical engineering graduate student Fabio Parigi. EE senior Kathleen Gegner described driving the roadster as “fun and fast,” with a surprisingly quiet operating noise. The sportscar feel continues in the vehicle’s responsiveness: “It just takes off,” said Gegner.

This battery electric vehicle can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds (quicker than most gasoline-fueled sports cars), Cox said, though its top speed is computer-limited to 125 mph.

Cox happily offers demos of the car and answers questions, feeling that each positive encounter fuels future electric vehicle ownership. His car, number 60 off the production line in 2008, cost $100,000 originally. Tesla Motors discontinued manufacturing of the two-seat roadsters in favor of sedans, also aimed at the luxury buyer but at a lower cost for wider consumer appeal.

Learning about electric vehicles has become Cox’s new avocation, since he retired in 2012 from an active career in mobile communications, which included work as an executive director and division manager of radio research at Bellcore; as a department head, supervisor, and member of Bell Laboratories’ technical staff; and as a US Air Force R&D officer. Most recently he shared that expertise to teach engineering courses and supervise graduate research at Stanford University, where he had earned his Ph.D., but it was one of Cox’s sons who showed him the important possibilities of battery electric vehicles.

Transportation accounts for nearly one third of American energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and three-quarters of American oil consumption with crucial impacts on climate, air pollution, resource depletion, and national security, said Cox, who advocates battery electric vehicles as a viable way to help address those challenges.

Cox has been a member of the UNL Department of Electrical Engineering’s Advisory Board and, when he and his wife moved back to Nebraska from California’s Bay Area, he met with Prof. Jerry Hudgins, department chair (who drives a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle), and began shaping this course. The syllabus includes an introduction to past and present electric vehicles and their evolution, plus deeper study of the most promising alternative: battery electric vehicles. Class sessions delve into BEV issues including electric motors, power electronics, drive trains and battery materials.

To the most common carside query—“How far can it go on a single charge?”—comes Cox’s frequent response: “It depends.” Road surface, vehicle speed and wind conditions—especially in Nebraska—are key factors, but he said when the car is fully-charged (which takes three hours using the 240-volt outlet in Cox’s garage), the car typically goes 200 miles at 65 mph.

EE senior Marques King said he’s enjoying Cox’s course: “It’s interesting and relevant,” and adds to the strength of the power electronics program at Nebraska Engineering.

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