Educating engineers for the EV era

Automotive News reports on the demand for electric vehicle engineers from automakers, and Wayne State University's electric vehicle engineering master's program.

Jerry Ku, director of the 2-year electric-vehicle engineering master's program at Wayne State University
Jerry Ku, director of the 2-year electric-vehicle engineering master's program at Wayne State University in Detroit, says today's auto power-train engineering needs to add some electrical and chemical engineering expertise to the traditional skill set of mechanical engineering. Automotive News

DETROIT--The nearly 200 students in Wayne State University's electric vehicle engineering master's program may have taken different routes to get here, but they have the same goal: capitalize on the auto industry's growing need for EV engineers.

About half are returning to school. Alan Dry, 63, for instance, was laid off from his job as an engineering supervisor at parts supplier International Automotive Components Group. Dry wants to rejoin the industry in the EV sector.

Chrysler engineer Kevin Snyder, 40, was transferred to the automaker's electrified hybrid power-train group in May. Snyder said the Wayne State program has eased his switch.

The transition from automotive mechanical engineer to EV engineer can be difficult, says Jerry Ku, director of the master's degree program. Unlike traditional automotive engineering, where countless mock-ups and models were used to test vehicles, most of the modeling and testing of EVs is done using software that represents the entire EV system, Ku says.

Also, he says, EV engineering is multidisciplinary. The engineers must be proficient in electrical and chemical engineering, among other things.

Several degree paths
Wayne State established the EV engineering program in May 2010 in conjunction with Macomb Community College in suburban Detroit after they received a joint $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The institutions offer several degrees in alternative-energy and electric-drive technology.

Ku says he is not aware of another dedicated master's degree program for EV engineers. Classes began last fall. The program's 17 courses include fundamental offerings on battery technology and power-train modeling, as well as government EV policy. To earn a master's degree, students must complete about eight courses, which generally takes two years.

The master's program uses three laboratories--for battery and energy storage, electric propulsion, and electric motor control.

"Students will measure the charge and discharge cycle of the battery and use it to develop battery management models for the power train," Ku said. "There's the electric motor propulsion integrated lab where students can see how a motor is tested and how the testing can contribute to the modeling for the motor."

Wayne State also is fielding a team of about 20 students for the EcoCar 2 competition that begins this fall. Students from 16 universities will develop advanced fuel-efficient vehicles in the three-year contest sponsored by General Motors and the Department of Energy.

Idan Regev, an EV engineering master's student and the Wayne State EcoCar 2 project manager, says the EcoCar experience rounds out the students' education.

"The program can get you so far as being a very smart student, but it doesn't make you an engineer," Regev says. "That competitive environment that the EcoCar gives you and the skills it gives you make a real difference."

Huge demand, little supply
Kent Helfrich, GM's executive director of electronic controls and software, says the automaker aims to hire students with real-world experience, especially from the EcoCar competition.

"The students that we hire from EcoCar hit the ground running," Helfrich says. "They already know the latest cutting-edge tools. ... We teach them the techniques, how to think and how to problem-solve."

Students with EV experience have an advantage in the job market, says Snyder, the Chrysler engineer. It's a simple matter of supply and demand, he adds. There's more demand for mechanical engineers, but there is also "a big supply of mechanical engineers."

But for EV engineers, Snyder says, "There's a huge ratio of demand and not much supply."

So far the job placement rate for grads is 100 percent.

Krishna Jahsti, 25, who transferred into the program with enough credits to complete it in one year, became the program's first graduate in May. He got his first job in the auto industry with IAV Automotive Engineering, a provider of power-train engineering services.

(Source: Automotive News)

 

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