Electric vehicles (Vs) are part of the fourth industrial revolution, driven by disruptive technological change. This disruption may produce upheaval and uncertainty, with winners and losers. As a result, these technologies can produce new products and new jobs, but also cause possible displacement of jobs.
It appears that there will be new products and new jobs because many companies are investing heavily in the EV revolution. James Ayre, writing in CleanTechnica, said that over $90 billion in investments have now been pledged for the development of electric vehicles and associated battery tech by the world’s top auto manufacturers. Much of that investment will be for more engineers. Ayre noted that the plug-in electric vehicle sector represents under 1% of the total global auto market, so that percentage will grow because of the $90 billion investments. Therefore, most major auto manufacturers feel that there will be considerable EV growth over the next decade or so.
Daimler has said it will spend at least $11.7 billion to introduce 10 pure electric and 40 hybrid models, and that it intends to electrify its full range of vehicles, from mini-compact commuters to heavy-duty trucks. The largest single investment is coming from Volkswagen AG, which plans to spend $40 billion by 2030 to build electrified versions of its 300-plus global models.
Constance Douris, vice president of the Lexington Institute, manages its energy portfolio. According to Douris, “In coming years, automakers will unveil dozens of new electric-vehicle models. Ford alone recently announced that it is investing $11 billion in EV development. A glance at automakers’ EV investments worldwide is revealing: $19 billion in the United States, $21 billion in China, and $52 billion in Germany. Clearly, these seasoned companies do not doubt the future EV market as many cities and countries around the world begin phasing out the conventional internal combustion engine.”
EVs and the Grid
One area that few consider is the EV’s impact on the utility grid and the engineers associated with it. A recent scientific study found that in some circumstances, electric cars could have a greater impact on global warming than conventional vehicles. The study found that the energy-intensive manufacturing of electric cars meant some vehicles had almost double the impact on global warming as conventional cars, principally because of the amount of raw materials and energy needed to build the lithium-ion batteries.
The environmental impact of electric cars also depends on power sources used to recharge the EV. In geographical locations that have higher levels of renewable energy powering the grid, charging an electric vehicle is less harmful. If renewal energy is employed, engineers would have to design the wind or PV system and its connection to the utility grid.
In addition, engineers are working to develop and produce non-battery energy storage to support renewable energy. However, if the electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels, emissions are still being released, but at the point of electricity generation. So, without significantly increasing the amount of renewable energy that goes into the grid, the prospect of a wider use of electric cars isn’t as eco-friendly as it may appear.
One of the assumptions made when purchasing a vehicle is that it can take you almost anywhere we want to go. With a conventional car, all you need is a gas station every 300-400 miles and a few minutes to fill up the tank. With an electric vehicle, the battery may need to be recharged after as little as 150 miles and the process takes much longer.
Traditionally, battery charging takes hours, although several companies are working on faster charging solutions. One possible alternative is battery exchanging, which would allow you to drop off an empty battery and replace it with a full one in just a few minutes.
Drivers who are considering the purchase of a plug-in or an all-electric vehicle must take into account how far the vehicle can drive before requiring a recharge. Because of the limited availability of EV charging stations, drivers will need vehicles that they can drive long ranges before needing a recharge. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 11 states had no public charging stations at all as of June 2011, and 16 states had 10 or fewer. Because electricity storage is the major limiting factor for EV adoption, many scientists working on electric vehicles are focused on improving battery technology to enable larger energy capacity and longer range.
To make electric vehicles a viable alternative to traditional ones, scientists also strive to make batteries that recharge faster. Non-electric vehicles can be filled with gas in a matter of a few minutes, while most current batteries require several hours to fully charge.
Scientists also work on batteries to improve a hybrid vehicle’s fuel economy. The longer a vehicle can be driven on battery power alone, the less fuel it will consume. Improved batteries will allow vehicles to rely more on electric propulsion and less on fossil fuels.
The effect on engineering wages required for EV development is another factor to consider. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t currently publish wage data specifically for EV occupations, However, it lists wages that represent the larger industry or industry group that would employ the EV workers, where applicable (see table).
Selected design and development occupations in transportation equipment manufacturing (BLS). Because of inflation. wages in 2018 will be higher than those in 2010.
In the next few years, employment growth is expected in most occupations in the EV industry, according to a study by the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley. Growth is expected in manufacturing industries and the domestic energy sector as the need increases for batteries and charging stations. New types of automobile manufacturing jobs will also be created; however, many of these jobs will be filled by current manufacturing employees or those who were displaced by recent downsizing of the automobile manufacturing industry.
There are a number of EV-related engineering jobs, including:
Chemical engineers investigate the properties, composition, and structure of matter, and the laws that govern the reactions of substances to each other. Using this knowledge, chemical engineers working on electric vehicles find new chemicals to use in batteries or ways to make existing batteries work better and safer. They work closely with other engineers and scientists to develop new batteries and related technologies.
Materials engineers study the structures and chemical properties of various materials to develop new products or enhance existing ones. For EVs, materials engineers are heavily involved in battery research, but also develop materials for other parts of the vehicle. Structural and mechanical components made out of lighter or stronger materials will be needed to make vehicles more fuel efficient and reliable. These materials also may improve the safety of vehicles as well as their environmental impact.
Electrical engineers design, develop, test, and supervise the manufacture of electrical components. They are responsible for designing the electrical circuitry that allows a gas engine to charge the battery in a hybrid vehicle and distribute the electricity from the battery to the electric motor. Most of this effort is related to the distribution of power throughout the EV where batteries and motors operate at hundreds of volts. This includes the driving of propulsion motors for the EV.
Electronics engineers design, develop, and test electronic components and systems for these vehicles. These engineers are primarily focused on the control systems and additional electronic components for the vehicle. They don’t usually focus on the generation and distribution of electricity.
Electronics engineers also perform a variety of jobs for EV development, such as:
- Computer engineers configure the processor and memory along with their associated “building blocks.”
- Thermal-management engineers design climate control inside the EV as well as controls for heat dissipation on electronic components.
- EMC (electromagnetic control) engineers provide techniques to prevent EMI from affecting internal systems in the EV as well as external systems in other equipment.
- Lighting engineers design the EV’s internal and external lighting, primarily using LEDs.
- Test engineers checkout the EV’s hardware and software to ensure all systems are operating properly.
- Test instrument engineers design instruments employed to test various functions on an EV. These instruments might be used on the factory floor or at a car dealer’s repair facility.
Industrial engineers determine the most effective ways to use the basic factors of production—people, machines, materials, information, and energy—to manufacture vehicles. They’re concerned primarily with increasing productivity through the management of people, use of technology, and improvement of production methods.
Mechanical engineers design, develop, and test the tools, engines, machines, and other mechanical devices used in electric vehicles. Devices may include components of electric vehicles, or machines used in the manufacture or repair of these vehicles. These engineers may focus on engines, electric motors, or other mechanical devices, such as transmissions, drivetrains, or steering systems. In addition, they may get involved in packaging the electronic circuits within the EV as well as supporting design of its internal cables.
Mechanical engineering technicians assist engineers with solving technical problems in research, development, manufacturing, construction, inspection, and maintenance. Their work is more narrowly focused and is more oriented toward applications than that of engineers or scientists. Engineering technicians will build or set up equipment, prepare and conduct experiments, collect data, and calculate or record results. They may also help engineers or scientists to make prototypes of newly designed equipment or assist with computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) equipment.
Software engineers design and create EV software. They apply the theories of computer science and mathematical analysis to create and evaluate software applications and systems that make the computers run. Modern vehicles are extensively computer-controlled, and software engineers create the software that controls these vehicles. In addition, hybrid and electric vehicles use on-board computers to produce and distribute the proper amount of electricity to power the vehicle in given conditions. The on-board computer also determines when to use the gasoline engine to power a hybrid vehicle and when to use the engine to recharge the battery.
Engineers typically enter the electric-vehicle industry with a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, some positions require previous experience or an advanced degree. Entry-level engineers may begin their career as an assistant to a more senior engineer until they develop the skills needed to work independently. Engineers are also expected to complete continuing education courses to keep up with rapidly changing technology.
Specialized programs for engineering students who wish to work on electric or alternative-fuel vehicles are available through the Department of Energy’s Graduate Automotive Technology Education (GATE) program. The GATE program has educational programs at centers at eight universities nationwide.
Engineers are usually required to be certified in specific systems and technologies, depending on the systems utilized by a particular manufacturer. Licensing as a professional engineer (PE) is highly desired by employers and is often required for anything higher than an entry-level position.