Bridging the EV Engineering Skills Gap
The electric vehicle market continues to grow. Do we have enough EEs who can design them?
With hybrid and fully electric vehicles (EVs) booming worldwide, automotive OEMs and suppliers need professionals experienced in EV automotive design more than ever. Despite a COVID-driven drop in automotive sales in 2020, EVs experienced a rise last year in popularity in Europe and were emphasized in Chinese economic recovery. This trend of EV adoption, combined with a commitment from many companies to go full-electric by 2030, means that manufacturers will continue funneling billions into electrification R&D.
This swing towards mass adoption highlights the fact that most practicing engineers either lack the professional training resources to pivot into a career in designing EV systems. How can EEs keep up with the demand for EV skills?
Opportunities and Challenges for the EV Market
The automotive landscape has changed dramatically since the early 2000s, where electrification arrived in the form of traditional hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs). Reliant on a large battery, electric motor, and internal combustion engine (e.g., the Toyota Prius), these platforms were jumping-off points for further research. While hybrid vehicles were clearly more efficient and eco-friendly than their fully mechanical predecessors, would these benefits be sufficient to satisfy regulators and customers alike?
Thereafter, vehicle manufacturers have injected the market with a number of new technologies:
- Plugin hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs)
- Extended range battery electric vehicles (E-REVs)
- Battery electric vehicles (BEVs)
While powertrains didn’t necessarily become more complex in all instances, their quirks certainly required additional thought. How would regenerative braking capabilities be designed and implemented? Could large battery packs and cell layouts provide ample performance while preserving reliability? How can gasoline engines and electric motors coexist harmoniously?
Additionally, ample planning revolves around incorporating new electrical components with a car’s existing ECU (electric control unit) or ECM (electric control module). The car’s “brain” must essentially be able to register and monitor added powertrain components in real time. Will these additional dependencies impact reliability, especially if critical electrical parts fail?
Understanding the Skills Gap
Both mechanical and electrical engineers especially have faced similar questions for years. Nowadays, as we transition further towards BEVs (eventually abandoning gasoline, as many envision), EEs have taken center stage in the discussion.
There’s some concern, however. In an effort to create successful EV development programs, companies are ravenously headhunting experienced electrical engineers—plucking them from other industries, or in many cases, from competitors. Established companies and feisty startups alike (of which there are many) are offering experienced EEs massive pay jumps to lure them into the fold. When all of our best engineering professionals are spoken for, how do we account for that skills gap?
Companies face a growing need for enthusiastic, knowledgeable professionals, especially due to new hiring practices, where companies engage in a zero-sum game. While our existing crop of electrical engineers is finite, that well is yet to run dry. Educating and training new professionals has always been critical to replenishing the workforce.
A promotional image from Ford's Research and Innovation Center Palo Alto. Image used courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Now that we’ve thrown a rapidly-changing EV landscape into the mix, things have become more complicated. Instead of asking, “Can we replace these aging professionals?”, it’s now also important to ask, “How can we attract aspiring EEs, and how does existing education need to change?” It’s also uncertain whether current EEs can adapt to tackle the EV challenge or not.
While ICE (internal combustion engine) technology may soon go the way of the dodo, EV research is an evolving frontier that will see many new breakthroughs in the coming decade. Educational programs must develop in lockstep, lest they quickly become outdated. However, there are many ways to absorb knowledge in today’s climate.
Exploring Numerous Approaches to EE Learning
Traditionally speaking, an aspiring EE would pursue a university education in person at their chosen school. A pioneering 1998 curriculum at Purdue University (notably following the launches of the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight) sought to place EEs and mechanical engineers in integrated teams—thus allowing them to tackle projects together while learning about wide-ranging technologies.
The concepts present in this visual guide to the "Integration of Knowledge" for Purdue's 1998 proposed pilot course will still be familiar to automotive engineers today. Image used courtesy of Maher E. Rizkalla and C.F. Yokomoto
This differed immensely from existing engineering coursework, which instead tended to focus on one technology and explore it in great depth. The professional environment that these new engineers would enter was interdisciplinary, and the systems onboard each HEV would be much more varied. Team building and hands-on design work were linchpins of the program.
Today, many of these practices remain the same. This is even true at Purdue, where modern coursework still tackles a multitude of EV topics such as powertrain fundamentals, architectures, electromechanics, battery characteristics, energy management strategies, and more. While the course includes three projects, the level of hands-on interaction is unclear. However, the class does bill itself as an introduction to technologies associated with EVs, HEVs, and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
Meanwhile, colleges like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have created courses that specifically aim to introduce engineering students to EV design. Each states that adjacent EE coursework will tie directly into vehicle electrification as they touch on power electronics, electric drives, power system design, embedded systems, and digital integrated circuitry. Instructors are keen on evaluating trends in battery use, development, and design.
A student at U of M's ECE department working on an automotive engineering project. Image used courtesy of the University of Michigan
Universities like the University of Michigan and Michigan Tech even offer EE and mechanical engineering master's programs with available emphasis on HEVs.
While courses didn't discuss plug-in HEVs and charging methods in detail 20 years ago, they certainly do now.
Continuing Education: Online Courses and Training
Online courses (free or paid) allow practicing engineers—not just enrolled students—to learn the facets of EV design. While college is aspirational for many, these outlets give a greater subset of learners the opportunity to explore EV topics. That’s not to say that budding EEs enrolled in EV-focused courses won’t attend undergraduate programs. Virtual coursework simply provides a way to stoke that passion, while straying from traditional pathways.
Many may be familiar with companies like Udemy or edX. Each of these platforms allows prospective students to dive into EV and HEV technologies via economical online sessions spanning multiple weeks. For example, Udemy offers some of the following courses:
- Introduction to Electric Vehicles
- Electric Vehicle Basics
- Electric Vehicle Battery Management Systems
Featured image of an advanced class titled "Electric Vehicle Battery Management Systems". Image used courtesy of Ritul Shah
With a multitude of courses available (some overlapping in scope), aspiring EEs and those looking to pivot in their careers can educate themselves on the core components found within today’s EV platforms. The same can be said for edX’s Hybrid Vehicles course, which focuses on designs blending ICE and electric technologies. In general, it’s now possible for students to find e-learning resources that are taught by faculty from leading universities. By removing hefty costs associated with seeking a full university degree, EV education is becoming much more democratized.
On the training side, companies like Texas Instruments, NXP, ST, and the Society of Automotive Engineers are offering webinars for those interested in electric vehicles. This is a free, low-pressure way for engineers to learn various solutions and methods at their own pace. Pre-recorded sessions are easier to absorb and take notes on. Users can learn about EV powertrain systems, DC/DC power conversion, bidirectional charging, and the functions of silicon-carbide power devices in these vehicles.
While university coursework is led by professors, company-sponsored webinars are unique in that they’re led by practicing engineers, marketers, and researchers. This offers EEs differing perspectives on the electric vehicle movement with insight from the supplier side.
Building Blocks for Professional Success
Though the EE skills gap has widened in respect to EV development, many forces are working to turn the tide. A new wave of topical coursework, virtual boot camps, and video content is helping hopeful engineers progress throughout their educational journeys. By educating these students on electric vehicle trends and design, industry leaders are looking to brighten our outlook on EV growth.