It’s a car, it’s a cart, it’s tech support riding to the rescue

by Kevin Behr

It looks like an unholy mishmash of vehicles: a Jeep spliced with a pickup truck spliced with a golf cart.

But whatever it looks like, it’s buzzing around campus solving technology problems for professors and teaching assistants.

The Office of Classroom Management has been responding to emergency technology problems for the past six years, but in 2006 it acquired the “golf cart on steroids,” said Larry Gilbertson, technical services coordinator for the office.

The maroon monstrosity has working headlights, windshield wipers, seatbelts and a maximum speed of about 25 mph, Gilbertson said.

The “classroom emergency response vehicle” is fully electric, making it environmentally friendly and cost-effective, he said. The battery can be fully charged for just 75 cents and lasts for about 55 miles of driving, Gilbertson said.

A vehicle like this would typically only be able to run on sidewalks, but a new law passed last year makes it and other “neighborhood electric vehicles” street legal.

The law gives the vehicle access to every classroom on the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses within seven minutes of being contacted, Gilbertson said.

“On such a sprawling campus, it’s a huge advantage,” he said. “A lot of buildings are much more accessible on sidewalks than roadways.”

Rick Peifer, assistant to the director of the biology program, said his department has been in close contact with the Office of Classroom Management for years and actually suggested the office get golf carts to access campus sidewalks.

“That was one of the biggest problems they had: They had to jump into a truck, wait for traffic, find a place to park and then come in and see us,” he said.

“I’ve noticed this past term that the response time has been much better,” Peifer said.

Frederick Asher, an art history professor, said he calls the office fairly frequently for problems with projectors or microphones.

“I appreciate the response,” he said. “It’s very helpful.”

Every general purpose classroom has a phone with the number for the office on it, Gilbertson said. Professors and teaching assistants can call the office for any problem there may be with the classroom. If it’s a technology problem holding up the teaching process, the vehicle is dispatched to take care of it, he said.

Gilbertson said he first read about neighborhood electric vehicles in the newspaper and then saw one on display at the State Fair. He said he thought they were interesting and could benefit the University, so he pursued the idea.

After speaking with a company that makes electric vehicles, the University had one built for its specific needs.

The vehicle ended up costing about $23,000, which came from the Office of Classroom Management’s operating expenses, Gilbertson said. It was a little more expensive because Gilbertson said he needed a topper in the back

to protect equipment and an enclosed cab to save drivers from freezing conditions in Minnesota winters.

At this point, the office has two vehicles – one electric and one gas-powered. Gilbertson said he would like to add vehicles to the fleet to decrease response time and answer more calls for help at the same time.

Asher said the service is “a great deal better than it used to be” with the seven-minute response time.

“It would be wonderful if they could come even more quickly,” he said. “For every minute that technology doesn’t work for, say, 200 students in a large classroom, that’s over three student-hours of lost class time.”