Automakers and universities team up to fix AV industry’s talent gap

By Chris Teale, Smart Cities Dive

When the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) at Ohio State University began over 30 years ago, it focused on traditional subjects like the transmissions, noise and vibrations from internal combustion engines, with some attention paid to what was then a growing trend of automotive electronics.

Now, with the advent of autonomous vehicles (AVs), its focus has changed.

“What used to be a predominantly mechanical engineering discipline with some electronics sprinkled in has become an industry that depends on computing power, computer science, electrical and electronic systems and electrochemical energy storage,”  Giorgio Rizzoni, CAR’s director and an OSU mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, said.

The growing emphasis on AVs comes as experts warn of a lack of qualified AV engineers. The dearth of expertise could hamstring the rollout of this much-hyped technology.

“You would think that people would be lining up to work in this area,” said Frank Menchaca, chief growth officer at standards-developing organization SAE International. “But the truth is, there is a relatively small pipeline of people who are equipped to be successful in automated driving.”

To combat that talent gap and grow the workforce of the future, four-year colleges and universities as well as community colleges and industry groups are starting to offer courses in AV engineering, software development and cybersecurity, with the help of industry experts to develop the curricula.

As the AV industry is estimated to skyrocket to a value of $556.67 billion by 2026 — from $54.23 billion in 2019, according to Allied Market Research — industry leaders warn such programs are imperative to ensure that graduates’ skills keep pace with the industry’s rapid rollout.

Evolving education needs

AV education in the academic setting focuses largely on engineering and software development, with automakers and other industry leaders often playing a key role in helping shape programs for students.

CAR is Ohio State’s main research lab for connected and autonomous driving. Among its projects is the EcoCAR, in which student teams compete over four years to re-engineer a Chevrolet Blazer to incorporate AV and electric technologies.

Graduate students also have the opportunity to work alongside some of the manufacturers in the Columbus, Ohio, region, and their thesis projects typically are funded by automakers, Rizzoni said.

The program’s teaching focuses on the trend of automation and intelligence in vehicle technology in addition to energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. Industry needs and the evolution of driving technology are largely driving that curriculum, Rizzoni said.

“If you were to ask the vice president for research at Ford Motor Company, for example, ‘Where’s Ford going?’ They would tell you: ‘More intelligent mobility, different solutions that involve understanding and analyzing data and responding to it in real time,'” Rizzoni said. “In that sense, we think that our future is where the future of the automotive industry is.”

The College of Charleston is launching a new electrical engineering degree program this fall with a focus on AVs. The initiative will complement its existing systems engineering degree while teaching students how to connect cars with various sensors, design their movements and operate the vehicles autonomously.

Sebastian van Delden, dean of the college’s School of Sciences and Mathematics, said the needs of automakers in the region are driving its offerings as well. Like students at Ohio State, senior students at Charleston will work on a yearlong capstone project alongside Mercedes, Volvo and Bosch, which each have factories in South Carolina.

The degrees can also help graduates who don’t end up working directly with AVs, van Delden said. “Nowadays in factories and other settings, they need people who can wire up, connect and program a variety of [internet of things] devices to implement, design and plan some type of system,” he said. “Graduates will be very good candidates for those types of positions.”

Democratizing job opportunities

Some community colleges and other groups are also getting in on the act.

Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, launched the first-ever autonomous driving certificate program for truck drivers in 2019, in partnership with self-driving truck company TuSimple.

The 12-credit program teaches students to operate and work with self-driving trucks while building skills in areas such as logistics, IT and automated industrial technology. The program’s introductory class provides a wide view of the AV landscape, including the ethical issues that surround it, like how AVs prioritize lives in a collision. 

Missy Blair, advanced program manager at Pima’s Center for Transportation Training, said about a dozen students are enrolled in the program right now. The program’s first students graduated last fall and are in the hiring process at TuSimple, which prioritizes hiring the center’s graduates.

Other education and training providers — beyond academic institutions — also are looking at how they can enter this field to educate people on AVs.