Electric Car Education
Luke Ottaway's picture

I want to build electric cars - what major should I choose?

Since there is not yet an “electric vehicles” major at institutions of higher education, what should one study to prepare for a career in the electric vehicle industry?

I’m glad you asked. First we must clarify the meaning of the word “build” in this case. If you want to literally build electric cars, say as an associate at a Nissan Leaf plant, a good starting point would be a vocational or technical college or trade school that offers training in electronics, high-voltage circuits, electric motors, or similar. This type of education is far cheaper than your classic four-year bachelor’s degree program, and will offer practical skills that can be applied as a technician in the EV industry either building or servicing electric vehicles.

If you want to be one of the people designing or improving electric vehicles, then my recommendation would be an engineering degree. The automotive industry is what we call multidisciplinary, meaning it spans a wide range of relevant fields of knowledge. There are many types of engineering that are applied to the development of electric vehicles. A (likely incomplete) list follows:

Electrical engineering, for anything from design of power electronics (devices that convert AC electricity to DC to charge the battery, and then back again to power the motor) to the high-voltage circuits present in these vehicles. This field also applies to electric vehicle charging and grid integration, an often-overlooked aspect of electric vehicles.

Computer or software engineering, because modern vehicles are incredibly complex and require significant computer control to function properly. Electric vehicles present unique challenges in this field not shared with internal combustion vehicles.

Controls engineering, which amounts to a combination of mathematical modeling, electrical and computer/software engineering and is one of the most important fields in vehicle development today.

Chemical engineering, because the heart of the vehicle is the battery and the need for improvement in battery technology is well-documented.

Manufacturing or industrial engineering, because electric vehicles and their batteries present unique manufacturing challenges. For example, lightweighting is important to vehicle efficiency which leads to manufacturing innovations such as mass-produced carbon fiber-reinforced plastic and stamped aluminum.

Mechanical engineering, which can combine elements of several the aforementioned engineering disciplines depending on the concentration chosen. This field also specializes in things like mechanical power transmission, such as transmitting the motor’s rotational power efficiently to the wheels; and thermal management, which is crucial for battery, motor, and power electronics operation.

Automotive engineering, an extremely broad field that allows specialization in fields like vehicle dynamics, manufacturing, powertrain engineering, controls, and more. There aren’t many schools that have automotive engineering, either undergraduate or graduate, but they’re out there and all offer some concentration relevant to electric vehicles.

If any of the above sound interesting, I’d encourage you to do some investigating on your own. Entering the electric vehicle industry ultimately amounts to learning in one or more disciplines that are relevant to a great many fields, and then applying it to electric vehicles. Engineering in particular teaches problem solving skills that can be universally applied. Especially for interns or entry-level employees, companies like Tesla want to hire motivated people who know how to solve problems; they aren’t necessarily concerned if you know exactly how to design a power inverter upon arrival.

To offer my own experience, I have a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. When I graduated I decided I wanted to enter the electric vehicle industry, so I went on to study automotive engineering at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research. I am in a graduate program called GATE, or Graduate Automotive Technology Education. This is a program established at several schools around the country by the U.S. Department of Energy to educate students in advanced vehicle technologies applied to electric and fuel cell vehicles. This particular program expires in a few years and may not be renewed, but hopefully the political climate down the road will be amenable to continuing its support of the GATE program. If not, many avenues remain that will lead you to a promising and rewarding career working with electric vehicles if you so choose.

Feel free to comment and leave your own experiences below.

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I'm sure you've heard this one before:: 4 engineers are in a car and it suddenly starts to shake badly and slows down. The driver pulls over and says to the group "What do you think is wrong?" The Mechanical Engineer says "I think it is a wheel bearing and a bad tire from hitting a pot hole. Call a tow." The Chemical Engineer says "It is bad gas. We should get it towed." The Electrical Engineer says "It is a short in the spark plug wires or a bad ground. Let's get it towed." The Computer Science Engineer says "I think we should just turn it all the way off and then back on again and see if that fixes it."
Love it John.
Simple answer maybe. I took "advanced" (first year university) physics and chemistry in my last year of high school (before I went to my first "Institute of Higher Drinking").
I am so glad and thankful to those inventors that really making use of our given environmental power and again to be part of the generation that do this achievement. ....my question is is there a great future for our technological carrier .....please if yes I want to know what gonna be. thanks
If i want work in electric vehicles then can i do automobile engineering ???
Hello sir I am pursuing my bachelor in electrical engineering and want to enter the electric vehicles field in electrical engineering Where should I go for my masters?
It looks like General Motors will be the global leader in EVs for the next decade. I'd check out Kettering University. Flint Michigan.
Thank you for your response sir however do you happen to know any other universities?
I graduated from a state university in Mass. and during my time there I was able to work on the thermal management of an electric car drive system (in 1990!). I would assume that if you look at the usual suspects (MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford) and the colleges close to the Detroit automakers many have a program that would prepare you well. Just for the record, I am not the author of the story. He has moved on. He was a great resource and we miss him.