Engineers, we’re in the early days of a whole new automotive industry. Here’s what you need to know to design and build electric cars.
This is Part Three of our three-part series on the growing electric vehicle industry. In Part One, we went over the state of play for modern electric vehicles, while Part Two highlighted specific engineering challenges which remain to be solved. This week: what skills and competencies do you need to build electric cars?
Ten years from now, that Tesla dealership in Longwood won’t be a rarity or a tourist attraction. Electric cars will be everywhere. Every showroom and every used car dealer will have options for hybrids and EVs. There will be EVs for soccer moms, businessmen, seniors, and college kids, in every price bracket.
“That’s where we need to get to,” says Darren Hammell, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Princeton Power Systems. “People want a car they like, that suits them, that meets their needs, that also happens to be hybrid or electric. The manufacturers have all realized that. The industry has reached a size where there are a lot of different disciplines involved. That means there’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s going to take people with new, fresh approaches, and a wide range of skills.”
What Skills Do Engineers Need to Build Electric Cars?
Electrical, mechanical, chemical, and software engineering are all in heavy demand.
“Everyone’s looking for people who know about electrical motor control, power converters, and electronics,” says Hammell. “There’s a lot of thermodynamics involved, as we deal with a lot of interplay with heat. There’s a lot of work on advanced batteries, so that’s one place they need chemical skills. And we really need people who understand solar.”
Christian Okonsky, CEO of Austin’s KLD Energy Technologies, points to the vehicle control unit, the heart of the EV. “This thing has vast technology capabilities. It runs everything. That takes deep understanding of embedded systems. Battery and power management is critical. That’s where we’re going to get the efficiency savings that increase range and performance. In my area, it’s electronics and software that matter most.”
“Electric vehicles may bring in more chemical engineers and power engineers than traditional ICE vehicles require,” notes Jean M. Redfield, President and CEO of Michigan non-profit NextEnergy. “They also place new demands on mechanical engineers and power electronics and controls engineers. Energy optimization is not just a drivetrain challenge, it’s a whole vehicle optimization process.”
Nigel Francis (Senior VP, Automotive Industry Office, Michigan Economic Development Corporation) agrees wholeheartedly. “Within the Michigan Economic Development Corporation we have a strong and growing focus on the development of our talent for the future. We want to lead the world in the development of such talent as it is the highly skilled and talented men and women of our industry that both sustain it and will take it forward successfully into the future. These skills are now being taught proactively by the great Universities and Community Colleges in Michigan.”
Who’s Hiring Engineers to Build Electric Cars?
There are plenty of opportunities to get into the industry. “Audi, Volkswagen, Via, Tesla, BMW and others are really leading this field, but all the automotive companies need people,” says Okonsky. “Even the ones who are still stuck in an ICE mindset know they need to develop new vehicles. Then there are battery companies, such as ourselves, as well as technology partners like Samsung and Panasonic. It’s a huge spectrum of different companies, all over the world.”
“There’s much more to it than just working on the cars,” reminds Hammell. “Project managers, urban planners, architects, consultants, manufacturing supervisors, even the people designing the machines that construct and test the cars – all those people will contribute to the spread of EVs. All those skills will be relevant too.”
Redfield closes with an important observation: “Overall, the skill people most need is the ability to work in multi-disciplinary teams. Expect to learn from and contribute to others on the team, communicate and interact with others in a variety of challenging settings, and accept that a lifelong career means lifelong learning. You shouldn’t expect the job, the company, the industry to last a whole career span, so you shouldn’t over-train for a specific, current job.”
Are You Ready to Build the Future of Transportation?
In the modern world, the automobile dominates our lives. We rely on cars for everything. We plan our cities and towns around the needs of cars and drivers. After our homes, they’re our biggest expense and most prized possession.
And yet, we’re polluting our air with the toxic exhaust fumes our cars belch out, damaging our lungs, harming our children, and contaminating our food. We’re squeezing every drop of increasingly costly oil from the ground beneath our feet and under the sea to keep them running. At night, we’re kept awake by the sounds of revving engines. For all its sophistication, the modern internal combustion engine is a relic of an earlier age.
EVs promise to change all that. They offer clean, quiet, cheap transportation. Smog could become a thing of the past. The very air we breathe could become healthier once again. Our demand for fossil fuels will diminish, which will have enormous geopolitical and economic implications for every nation in the world. And we’d be able to sleep soundly at night without the constant growling of engines.
Today’s EVs may be limited in some ways, but for most people, most of the time, they’re more than adequate. Toyota, Tesla, and others have proved that hybrids and electric vehicles can work, and can work well. There’s no longer an argument about whether EVs will become mainstream.
The only remaining questions are who’s going to make it happen, and how quickly.
Featured Image Credit: Steve Jurvetson