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