Episode Description

How can we advance mobility solutions for all Tennesseans? In this episode, Host Cortney Piper interviews Dr. Kevin Heaslip, Director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Heaslip also serves as the Chief Executive Officer of TEAM TN, a partnership with the National Science Foundation and an alliance of 100 academics, industry, and technical societies led by UT Knoxville. TEAM TN’s goal is to position Tennessee on the leading edge of transportation electrification and digitization.

Learn more about TAEBC, the Center for Transportation Research, and TEAM TN. Thank you to our podcast sponsor FirstBank!

Episode Transcript

Cortney Piper: Welcome to Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re your number-one podcast for news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector. I’m your host, Cortney Piper.

How can we advance mobility solutions for all Tennesseans? Today’s episode seeks to answer this question and others about how we can leverage public-private collaboration to usher in the future of mobility at scale. In May of 2023, the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was chosen to lead a National Science Foundation Regional Innovation Development Engines program.

There are 44 NSF engines nationwide, each with a mandate to catalyze and foster innovation ecosystems. UTK’s development engine is named TEAM TN. Its goal is to position Tennessee on the leading edge of transportation electrification and digitization, and how will TEAM TN do that? Through partnerships, of course.

It’s an alliance of 100 research institutions, education and workforce development organizations, industries, communities, state government departments, utilities, entrepreneurs, and technical societies, all working toward one common goal. In this episode, I spoke with Dr. Kevin Heaslip, a man who wears many hats, including the Director of the Center for Transportation Research, and he’s also the CEO of TEAM TN.

The Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council is a core partner of this initiative. TEAM TN’s mission aligns with our mission to champion advanced energy as a job creation and economic development strategy. But more on that in a moment.

In the meantime, if you like what you hear, don’t forget to leave a rating or review. It helps us reach a wider audience to champion Tennessee’s advanced energy sector. Energizing Tennessee would not be possible without the support of TAEBC members and our sponsor, FirstBank. To learn more about FirstBank and how they can support you or your business, visit firstbankonline.com.

Cortney Piper: Kevin Heaslip, thanks for coming on the show. 

Kevin Heaslip: Well, thank you for having me, Cortney. 

Cortney Piper: You’re the director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This is a nationally recognized research entity. Tell us a little bit more about the center and its goals. 

Kevin Heaslip: The center has been around for the last 50 years and, has been a support system for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, our state and local governments, understanding how we make our roads safer and more efficient.

We have done a lot of work nationally with the University Transportation Centers program. We held the Southeast Transportation Center for about 30 years at that time. And our focus has been on making roadways safer. And now, our next step is how we bring technology and how we create a safe, efficient, and hopefully fun transportation system in the future.

Cortney Piper: Fun is key. And in addition to the Center for Transportation Research, you’re leading a new National Science Foundation-funded initiative called TEAM TN. And for our listeners’ awareness, TAEBC is a core partner in this initiative, and might I say a proud core partner in this initiative. So, Kevin, what is TEAM TN?

Kevin Heaslip: TEAM TN is a coalition of people, and we certainly thank TAEBC for being a core member. Certainly, what we’re looking to do is to drive economic development through building research and development capabilities, not just with our universities but with our companies as well.

And once we have more research and development space and mobility, then to build a workforce around that and to take that innovation that’s coming out of our labs and bring it to market. The big goal of this is to make sure that what we’re doing in the research space doesn’t sit on the shelves and that we have a real impact on the world.

And when I talk about the research and development, what I’m talking about is making electric vehicles cheaper, making them more efficient, making them safer as well, really try and decarbonize transportation. The other area that we’re looking at is the automation of vehicles. Some of the things that we’re looking at is the security of the vehicles, security of the data and to be able to communicate the vehicles with the infrastructure and each other. So, in the big scheme of things, we want to bring this technology to Tennessee, we want to have Tennessee be a leader in the development, the manufacturing, and to build maybe an electric motor city, but not just in one city in Tennessee, but the whole state of Tennessee. 

Cortney Piper: Electric motor cities. I like that. I like that. I’ve lived in Tennessee now for 25 years, but in particular, the last three or four years is the sheer amount of economic activity that our state has experienced around transportation electrification, not only having four major automotive OEMs in the state, but the supply chain that wraps around that the wins that we have seen in the last three years have just been huge.

And then also seeing our research institutions catalyze around this whole notion of advanced mobility and electrification has just been incredible. And TEAM TN takes all of that and is coordinating all of it for something big. So, with that setup, I want you to tell our listeners more about why Tennessee is the best possible state to execute this kind of initiative and vision that the National Science Foundation is seeking to create.

Kevin Heaslip: Yeah, I think some people look at Tennessee and they talk about electric vehicles, and they say, this doesn’t seem to be a great fit. But I think when we look back at Tennessee’s history, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and electrifying the Tennessee Valley, think about what life was like back in the early 1900s and how the electrification of Tennessee Valley Authority changed the region and the state.

I think we’re taking that next step here in transportation as well. The state has really been active in recruiting companies to come to Tennessee to manufacture vehicles and even, looking back into the 80s, bring Nissan to Tennessee. So eventually built the Nissan Leaf in Tennessee. So, this is something that when we look at Tennessee’s history, it makes a lot of sense because we’ve been traveling this trail for a long time.

This is not a Michigan where they’ve been doing the internal combustion engine exclusively for a hundred years. For the last 30-40 years in Tennessee, we’ve been paving the way for electric vehicles. And now, starting with Nissan, but with Volkswagen, Ford, Blue Oval City, and General Motors, there’s so much momentum in the states on not just seeing what we could do in the past, but blazing a new future.

I think that when the National Science Foundation is looking at the state of Tennessee, they’re seeing that this is part of our DNA. And if you’re looking to spin up what they’re calling a regional innovation engine, if you think about it that way, when you think of Silicon Valley, if you can think of the Boston area, if you have that DNA in you, why can’t we spin up something like that where people think of Tennessee as the electric motor cities, and I think this is where there’s a lot of excitement, and there’s so much activity, there’s so much momentum from the government, from industry, from industry groups like yours, and communities that are really starting to say, this is an area where Tennessee can distinguish itself.

Cortney Piper: And if you were to put a dollar amount on the market opportunity that we as a state could seize, what would that be? 

Kevin Heaslip: The global market for this in the next ten years is looking at $2 trillion of economic activity. And certainly, we were unlikely to see $2 trillion of activity here, but hundreds of billions of dollars could be coming through.

If you think about the economic engine that Detroit has been for Michigan over the last century. You’re looking at hundreds of billions of dollars, and certainly, if Tennessee can step up and be the leader in this area, not just the electrification, but the automation, there’s so much. 

The sky’s the limit.

Cortney Piper: We, TEAM TN, are looking at building an initiative where the state can capture its fair share of this $2 trillion global market opportunity. So, there’s workforce, there’s research and development, there’s community building and economic development that can happen from all of this. So, when TEAM TN realizes its vision, what’s in it for the average Tennessean?

How might their lives change, or generations transform if we’re talking about capturing our fair share of a $2 trillion market opportunity? 

Kevin Heaslip: The average Tennessean has a lot to gain from this, whether it’s having more educational opportunities to areas of the state that haven’t had those before to having jobs in the manufacturing sector, the research sector, or everything in between.

Even looking at these new vehicles, how we maintain them, how do we maintain our charging networks. So, if you think about whether it’s charging the maintenance. It goes very, very wide to the number of jobs that are needed to run a transportation system and to service vehicles.

And then the goal is we have higher wages with these jobs and that we bring down the cost of the technology. So, one of the things that one of my colleagues, Jon Shefner, says at UT, and I agree completely with, is we are manufacturing these vehicles here, but the average electric vehicle is almost $55,000 right now.

So, if you’re working a traditional middle-wage job, you can’t afford one of these vehicles right now. And so, the benefits of some of the air quality and the lower cost of ownership is not being spread around the population equally. So, if we bring down the cost, bring up the efficiency while bringing better jobs, higher paying jobs, just think of the opportunities that we have in Tennessee to transform the way that people live. And that’s the exciting thing is when we think about transportation, it’s delivering goods. It touches every part of our lives. And whenever we make transportation a little bit better allow people to have mobility between jobs, everybody’s lives get a little bit better.

And that’s the exciting thing about the opportunity here with TEAM TN. 

Cortney Piper: TEAM TN has 100 or over 100 partners engaged in this work, but who are some of these core partners that will make TEAM TN a reality? 

Kevin Heaslip: Our foundational partners span the education sector, our unique Tennessee institutions like Oak Ridge National Lab and Tennessee Valley Authority.

But I think one of the areas where we’ve distinguished ourselves is the involvement of the state government early on. Having LaunchTN involved, having the Department of Economic and Community Development, Department of Environment and Conservation, and Department of Transportation. One of the things that we got in our review process was that many other organizations did not have the buy in from the states at a very early point.

And I think that shows that we’re plugging into an ecosystem that’s building already, and that’s important. But again, business groups like TAEBC, and Three Roots Capital providing opportunity. We hope by working with LaunchTN and our capital partners, we want to have a place where people come to Tennessee and say, I can build my business here, I can have a startup here, I don’t have to go to Palo Alto, I don’t have to go to Austin, I don’t have to go to Ann Arbor in order to do a self-driving startup or electric vehicle startup or components manufacturing. So, one of the things that we’ve started to see is that capital is starting to come into Tennessee, and we’re getting calls from Texas, we’re getting calls from California saying there’s stuff going on in Tennessee, how do we get involved? How do we invest those things? So that’s really exciting to see because we’re still really in the early stages of how we’re going to move forward here. 

Cortney Piper: And what’s been remarkable for me to witness in addition to All those partners that you outlined working together is all our major research institutions and universities are in TEAM TN from west to east.

So, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and UT Chattanooga, but then we’ve got Vanderbilt. We’ve got Tennessee Tech. We have Tennessee State. We have Memphis. We’ve got all our major universities represented in addition to Oak Ridge National Lab, which I think is just. Phenomenal. And then, Kevin, you mentioned workforce too having the Tennessee Board of Regents engaged at a very high level with TEAM TN, I think is a game changer for our state because they provide all the access and the coordination to our community colleges and technical colleges, which we know industry just They love our community college system and they love TCAT, our technical college system because they are so responsive to industry needs.

So, you have assembled a team where everybody is going in the same direction that needs to be part of making this vision a reality. And it’s rather remarkable. So. What is next for TEAM TN? 

Kevin Heaslip: The next step that we have is our TEAM TN Summit that we’re going to be having in Cleveland, Tennessee the 30th and 31st of January.

And what we’re looking to do is to say, what is the next steps? We’ve done some analysis of where we’re strong and especially in the workforce development with the Board of Regents, we’re very strong. We’ve identified some challenges that we need to put some time into and put some effort into to round out our ecosystem in Tennessee and we’re trying to take those next steps and what we’re looking towards is a significant federal investment of $160 million to help take that next step and to use that investment to bring in capital from the outside and to start providing a place where people start to look at Tennessee as a place where you do research and development, you have the workforce ready, and you make big investments just like people have in the manufacturing space.

In January, we’ll be going through those next steps, and we need everybody’s input and support. And we believe that there’s going to be big things that come out of that. 

Cortney Piper: Kevin Heaslip, CEO of TEAM TN and the Director for the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Thanks for coming on the show. Tell our listeners where they can learn more about you and your work. 

Kevin Heaslip: Please go to TEAMTN.org to learn more about TEAM TN, and if you want to learn about our mobility initiatives at UT, go to mobility.utk.edu. Thank you for having me, Cortney. It was a pleasure.

Cortney Piper: Thanks, Kevin. And that’s our show. Thanks for tuning into Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re glad to be your number-one podcast for news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector. If you like what you heard, please share it with others or leave a rating and review.

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