Vanderbilt engineers drive Teslas, take lessons for futuristic transportation infrastructure

Lori Troxel, associate professor of the practice, center, poses with a demonstration Tesla and some of her Cities of the Future seminar students. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

A chance meeting between a Vanderbilt University civil engineering professor and a Tesla product specialist resulted in students getting a closer look at the futuristic cars in early February.

Lori Troxel, an associate professor of the practice, said she’d been trying to line up a visitor from Tesla when she met Tyler Dean, who works at the Tesla store in Brentwood, Tennessee. Troxel described a sustainable transportation project she’s leading, and Dean immediately agreed to bring three cars to the School of Engineering.

“I’m always looking for ways to speak about sustainability, autonomous driving and the future of transportation in general,” he said, standing next to a white Model S in the University Club parking lot.

Product specialist Tyler Dean and two other Tesla employees brought three cars to Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

Troxel is co-teaching a Commons Seminar for freshmen on Cities of the Future, where students consider various types of infrastructure, including transportation systems and the autonomous vehicles those would include. This year, they’re designing one to fit in with Sterling Ranch, Colorado, a planned community being built south of Denver where a unique partnership has opened up a test bed for Vanderbilt research projects.

Troxel’s seminar student John Fangmeyer (CEE’19) said he enjoyed his ride in a Tesla as a consumer but even more as a budding engineer.

“Even studying some of the technology they’ve been using and learning about it in seminars doesn’t come close to seeing it in action. It’s amazing,” he said.

The Tesla is roundly admired by professional reviewers, as well. “The all-wheel-drive Tesla Model S P85D sedan performed better in our tests than any other car ever has, breaking the Consumer Reports Ratings system,” an article in that magazine’s August edition gushed.

Owned by Elon Musk, the engineer and entrepreneur behind PayPal and SpaceX, Tesla produces a base model that can go from 0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds, senses curbs and cars around it and can park itself. A large touch screen allows drivers to access all of its functions, while a futuristic dashboard explains what the car is doing.

And it’s completely electric, going 270 miles on a single charge.

Vanderbilt Motorsports Club members also got to hear about the technology behind and ride in the Tesla cars that Dean brought.

There was only one question Dean couldn’t answer: What is Elon Musk like in person?

“I have yet to meet Elon Musk,” he admitted. “I’m definitely looking forward to that event.”

The Tesla Model S. (Photo courtesy of Tesla)


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering