Polaris GEM helps Northwestern University work toward zero emissions

Dec. 1, 2016
With the help of Polaris GEM vehicles, Northwestern University has been able to maintain its 240-acre campus with 10 zero emissions electric vehicles.

There is a transportation revolution happening at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Among the bustle of more than 20,000 students, the university’s facilities staff is busy maintaining this pristine campus using a fleet of 10 Polaris GEM electric vehicles to traverse the university’s 240-acre campus while quietly and sustainably going about their work.

Bordering Lake Michigan north of Chicago, the climate at Northwestern ranges from warm summer days to brutal winter chill. As one of the top universities in the world, Northwestern challenged facilities leaders to uphold high standards of sustainability while providing the most flexible year-round transportation possible for its maintenance staff.

Sustainable and Street Legal

Northwestern is a renowned research institution with a commitment to sustainability, which spurred them to look at replacing a number of gas-powered machines with GEM vehicles beginning in 2015. After starting with a small fleet of four, the university now is up to a fleet of 10.

“Gas savings was a contributing factor, but decreasing greenhouse gas emissions was the real reason for moving to electric vehicles. GEM gives us a zero emissions, street-legal and versatile vehicle with a range that allows our staff to get anywhere on campus,” said Samantha Kustra, procurement analyst at Northwestern University.

The go-anywhere combination of street legal and “off-road” capability were key factors in choosing GEM electric vehicles, according to Kustra. With zero emissions and lower operating costs than a gas powered van or truck, electric vehicles were the best solution. Extended battery life was a factor too. GEM has enough range to move around the large campus as needed. The ability to use roads or drive across turf and other terrain provides flexibility not found in golf carts and other options.

“When we initially started looking into electric utility vehicles, safety and versatility were key. Two of the major requirements were that they be street legal, but also that they could be driven on lawns,” says Kustra. “Both requirements have been met with our new GEM fleet.”

Safety and Comfort

Winter at Northwestern brings severe weather and chilling temperatures. Frequent travel across campus at all hours and in any weather makes automobile safety features like defrost, seat belts, exterior lighting and an enclosed climate-controlled space a necessity. Kustra points out that the drivability and comfort of the GEM has been very well-received.

“Our employees have had positive reactions to the power steering, roomier cab and cargo space,” says Kustra. “It’s logical that the more comfortable a driver is the safer the journey, too. GEM is easy to get in and out of. We really liked the 1400 pound payload too; it can carry all kinds of equipment and people anywhere we need to go.”

Purchase Process

Northwestern worked with a commercial sales representative from Polaris, who provided the opportunity to test drive the latest GEM, then helped customize the GEM fleet specifically to the staff’s needs.

“Having a commercial sales representative has been extremely valuable to us pre- and post-purchase,” adds Kustra. ”Our sales rep acted as a liaison between our procurement department and a local GEM Dealer.” This also created a local, single point-of-contact for future needs and ongoing fleet maintenance.

Customizable Style

According to the Princeton Review, nearly two-thirds of prospective students factor in sustainability practices when choosing a school. As Northwestern’s GEM fleet moves around campus, each vehicle carries with it the university’s message of sustainability. Customizable utility and storage features are configured to meet the university’s unique needs. At Northwestern, decals and custom designed paint in school colors complement the unique, futuristic body styling of GEM, drawing attention to the university’s overall message of sustainability.

The unique body style of the GEM draws people to it. With a fleet of 10 vehicles moving around campus, the sustainable messages GEM vehicles send to students, visitors and staff is helping bring electric vehicles into mainstream thinking.

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