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A new Tennessee Highway Patrol Ford Police Interceptor Utility Hybrid parked outside the state Capitol. / Contributed photo from State Department of General Services

NASHVILLE — State officials are conducting a real-time experiment to see how much money new Tennessee Highway Patrol hybrid cruisers can save on fuel costs in addition to helping the environment.

State Safety and Homeland Security Department officials, with those from the General Services Department, began phasing in use of 32 Ford Police Interceptor Utility Hybrids in June. Nine are now in service, with one assigned to the Chattanooga-headquartered Tennessee Highway Patrol District Two.

"As part of our responsibility to manage the state fleet as effectively as possible, we need to be testing hybrid and full-electric vehicles to determine their suitability for all the various purposes for which the state uses motor vehicles," said Bob Williams, General Services' assistant commissioner for Vehicle and Asset Management.

That includes assessing the vehicles' "practicality as well as their operational and maintenance costs so that we can ensure these vehicles are a good investment for the taxpayer's funds," Williams said in a news release.

So far, Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Dereck R. Stewart said, the patrol has been "pleased with how the hybrids have performed, especially with the powerful horsepower that our troopers must have to do their job on the road. With the hybrid additions, we're reducing our carbon footprint while still serving and protecting the citizens of Tennessee."

The model year 2020 vehicles can hit speeds of up to 137 mph. In a late 2019 review, Car & Driver gave it a thumbs up, saying the speedy vehicle's hybrid powertrain is what "makes this rolling cop shop special. It comprises a 285-hp naturally aspirated V-6 and a 44-hp electric motor, with total output of 318 horsepower."

At nearly $37,000 each, the hybrids cost about $3,000 more than gasoline-powered vehicles, Tennessee officials say. But officials hope to recoup that or more in fuel savings. Long-term operating and maintenance costs of vehicles in the field remain unknown, however, thus a full evaluation of the hybrids is necessary, officials said.

"We know the hybrids will provide a large savings in fuel spend; we just don't know exactly how much they will affect overall costs until they are used for an extended period of time," Williams said. "We all understand that the future of motor vehicles in the U.S. is electric, but how we gradually convert Tennessee's motor fleet is a decision with both operational and financial components."

Tennessee began acquiring the vehicles in January and outfitted them with radios, electronic and graphics gear before putting them into service, General Services spokesman Dave Roberson stated in an email.

One key indicator Tennessee officials are tracking is how the vehicle, which combines a conventional internal combustion engine system with an electric propulsion system, does while idling. Troopers' vehicles are often left running, sometimes for hours, with full electronic gear remaining on after traffic stops, accident responses and investigations, writing reports and other activity.

In its review, Car & Driver noted the hybrid configuration "allows the engine to shut down without interrupting a steady supply of electricity to keep all the vital communication tech features working."

"Ford claims the combined MPG for the hybrid is 25 MPG, with the regular unit being 19 MPG," Roberson said in his email response to questions. "However, that is for fuel burned while driving. Since much of the time [Tennessee Highway Patrol] cruisers are at idle while working accidents and traffic incidents, real world savings could be much more — which is why we're excited about assessing their actual use in service."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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