Systems engineering seniors help Maryland county lower carbon footprint

Four systems engineering students overcame obstacles in their senior design project to help a Maryland county bring about environmental change. 

The four seniors in the Department of Systems Engineering and Operations Research (SEOR) and their faculty advisor, Emeritus Professor George Donohue, completed an analysis to help Anne Arundel County (AAC) in Maryland build a plan to switch their county’s fleet of vehicles from gasoline-only to hybrid electric vehicles.  

Recently, the county released a new policy to begin the transition, and the policy was largely guided by the team’s analysis.   

“County executives wanted to make an effort to reduce their carbon output, and looking at their fleet was a good way to accomplish that,” says Donohue.  

The four team members, Emily Chen, Mukand Bihari, Norman Au, and O’Ryan Lattin, tackled the year-long project creating a system for Anne Arundel County to switch their entire fleet of county vehicles over to electric by 2030.  

But a few months into the project, the team realized that the goal they were reaching for wasn’t attainable with the county’s current infrastructure and their budget. “One of the most difficult parts of this project was that in our analysis we found that it would be way over the county’s budget, and it was going to require electrical infrastructure upgrades to do a complete electric conversion,” says Au.  

After they realized the limitations, they quickly switched gears to offer other solutions so that the county could still make changes to their fleets and lower their carbon footprint. “We changed our scope to hybrid vehicles, which would still lower their carbon footprint, but also work better with their budget,” says Chen.  

The team presented county executives with their original challenge and then the alternatives that were more feasible for them. “In my time as an engineer, frequently we come back with an answer the client doesn’t like. One thing I try to teach our students is the ethics of engineering is to tell the clients the truth, not just what they want to hear,” says Donohue.  

And the team took this to heart. “Communication was really important. We had to capture all of the stakeholders’ needs and show them the facts and empirical evidence even though the original ask wasn’t practical, and giving them other solutions for their goal,” says Chen.  

And those alternate solutions paid off. In late July, Steuart Pittman, County Executive for AAC sent a memorandum to the county’s Director of Central Services to detail the county’s plans to transition to all hybrid and electric vehicles by 2037.  

“Matt Johnson, the county executive’s special staff person for the environment, came to me and said ‘George, you will be happy to know that we have adopted your recommendation,’” says Donohue.  

The team was happy to know that their efforts made a difference. “It was validating, to say the least, to see them make these changes,” says Chen.  

Due to the success of this project, SEOR has now partnered with Baltimore County to complete the same analysis for their county’s vehicles.