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Heroes: Engineers Driving the Future of Electric Vehicles

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Meet The Experts

Dr.-Biju-Parekkadan

Aashish Dalal, Mechanical Engineer

Aashish Dalal is a mechanical engineer with more than 20 years of experience working with electric vehicles. He presently works for Altec, where he develops and tests new hybrid solutions for hybrid trucks. Before joining Altec, Dalal worked for Southern California Edison and United Defense—later BAE Systems—where he designed and tested the next generation of hybrid defense tracked vehicles. Dalal also helped develop Tesla’s Model S motor and competed in the collegiate “Future Truck” competition. He holds a B.S and an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on hybrid electric vehicle development, from the University of California, Davis.

Dr.-Narain-Gehani

Ryan Hosler, Materials Engineer

Ryan Hosler is a materials engineer with AREVA NP, a major nuclear power company, where he counsels utilities companies and other engineers on the best materials to use to build new and existing components, particularly in irradiated environments. He previously worked for GE Nuclear. Hosler holds a B.S. in Materials Engineering from California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, which is known for its long-standing “learn by doing” motto.

Nuts and Bolts: Engineering Electric Vehicles

One could say the electric car revolution began when savvy businessman, inventor, and engineer Elon Musk introduced the fully-electric Tesla Roadster sports car in 2008, followed by the four-door Model S sedan in 2012. For the first time, EVs had a “cool” factor. Moreover, Musk and his fleet of engineers proved that electric cars were “doable” concerning larger-scale production, public demand, and, eventually, affordability.

According to the 2017 Electric Vehicle Outlook Report published by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, electric cars may become more cost-effective than combustion engines around 2025; by 2040, the could account for more than 50 percent of all new car purchases and a full one-third of the world’s car fleet.

“With China announcing a ‘ban’ on internal combustion engines (ICEs) in the near future (2020-2025), pressure is building on automotive and mass transit manufacturers to produce zero emissions electric vehicles, which is raising awareness and industry growth/funding,” said Aashish Dalal, a mechanical engineer with more than 20 years of EV experience. Another contributing factor—one with which Dalal is well-acquainted—is the emergence of technological advances that push the boundaries of what EVs in a cost-effective way.

How Engineers are Making EVs Better, Stronger, and Affordable

Mechanical, chemical, electrical, and other engineers are solving problems that once made mass adoption of electric vehicles virtually impossible. According to Dalal, batteries—and their cost—is one of the biggest hurdles.

“The total amount of energy available in batteries is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh), and the metric that is commonly used is cost per kWh ($/kWh). If the market price is $1000 / kWh, a Tesla Model S P100D with a 100 kWh battery will theoretically cost $100,000,” explains Dalal. Thanks to advancements in battery technology, the “average (cost) is between $300-500 / kWh at the moment, which is about half of what it was less than five years ago. This is representative of EV demand and adaptation of hybrid / electric technology. “

Recent technological successes that make EVs more affordable are not just a matter of advancing knowledge, but also an engineer’s ability to learn and apply that knowledge from a variety of different engineering disciplines. Rarely is a chemical engineer just a chemical engineer, and according to Dalal, neither is a mechanical engineer.

“As a mechanical engineer, I'm finding myself doing more electrical work than mechanical,” said Dalal. “Any mechanical system needs control, and that is accomplished electrically in most EV cases. If you think about an EV, how does an EV drive? With the mechanical wheels. What rotates the wheels? An electric motor that generates mechanical torque and speed. What powers the electric motor? The battery, which supplies electrical voltage and current,” and so on. “A deep understanding of both (mechanical and electrical engineering) is crucial for any student trying to get into the EV world.”

Dalal and other engineers like him are a driving force in EV success, but certainly not the only one. After all, even the most well-designed EV is worthless without a sustainable power source to charge it.

On the Grid: Powering the EV Revolution

Some of the best-known advantages of electric vehicles are their potential to reduce carbon-related air pollution and our reliance on fossil fuels: Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts EVs will reduce American oil consumption by 8 million barrels per day by 2040. Rarely do media reports address how we will produce the energy necessary to build and drive electric cars, and how cleanly.

Bloomberg predicts mass production of electric cars will increase U.S. electricity consumption to 1,800 TWh (terawatt hours) by 2040. This could strain the systems that generate and deliver that much current. Engineers are, once again, on the job. Among them: Ryan Hosler, a materials engineer with more than 15 years experience in nuclear power, who, with several other engineers from a swath of disciplines, are working to ensure power plants, wind farms, and other power generators can meet EVs’ growing energy demands safely. According to Hosler, the easiest solutions may not be the most environmentally sustainable.

“The process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has made natural gas a cheap and abundant energy source. Therefore, power utilities are most likely to choose natural gas when building new plants to meet increased power demands,” said Hosler, who advises nuclear plants on the safest materials they should use in irradiated environments. “The only thing that may slow down the expansion of natural gas power is increased regulatory scrutiny either due to the negative effects on the environment, such as polluting fresh-water aquifers, causing damaging earthquakes, and the release of CO2 that is accelerating climate change.”

The environment is not the only safety factor Hosler and his fellow engineers need to consider. Coal-fired plants, which remain a major source of energy in the United States, produce not only more CO2 emissions than many forms of power, but also more deaths—a factor typically measured by calculating the number of deaths per trillion kWh. Forbes reports that in 2012, Coal led the world in energy-related mortality, contributing to 100,000 deaths/trillion kWh globally. Oil was the second-leading cause of death (36,000/trillion kWh), followed by Biofuel/Biomass (24,000), natural gas (4,000), and hydroelectric (1,400). In the U.S., hydroelectricity (5 deaths/trillion kWh) and nuclear power (0.1 deaths/trillion kWh) remain the safest forms of power generation.

According to the New York Times, engineers are working with other professionals to assess the social, health, economic, and environmental risks with various types of fuels. Others, like Hosler, focus on finding ways to make existing power structures stronger, safer, efficient and secure, paving the way for the soon-to-be influx of electric transportation.

How to Become an Engineer in the Electric Vehicle Industry

Dalal and Hosler are just two of several types of engineers that progress the field of electric vehicles. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, here are some of the varied disciplines and the ways they contribute:

  • Electrical engineers: Design, develop, and test electrical components, including those that support electric motors, lighting, visual displays, and air conditioning.
  • Electronics engineers: Electronics engineers also create, design and test electronic components, but mostly focus on those that do not generate and distribute electricity.
  • Chemical engineers: Chemical engineers play a vital role in the development and continued improvement of the batteries upon which electric vehicles rely.
  • Materials engineers: Materials engineers develop, test, and counsel other engineers on the best materials to use when building electric vehicles.
  • Mechanical engineers: Mechanical engineers design and test the mechanical components of electric vehicles.
  • Industrial engineers: Industrial engineers look for the most efficient ways to produce electric vehicles and their parts.

One needs at least a bachelor’s degree in one of these specialties to pursue it in the field, though some employers prefer master’s degrees and/or, in some cases, a Professional Engineer (PE) license. Only those dedicated to research, like materials scientists, typically need doctorates.

The right degree and training are a start, but according to Hosler and Dalal, new engineers should consider their first few years in the field an extension of their educations.

“Academia provides the background on what to think about, while industry expects you to know how to execute; that is usually company-specific, and beyond the scope and capabilities of most college environments,” said Dalal. “Industry wants thinkers for sure, but you don't drive books. You drive hardware. I highly suggest taking advantage of the "maker" industry now that is evolving, including open source hardware pieces like the Arduino custom controller, and Raspberry Pi processor.”

Hosler tends to agree.

“Engineering is fun because you get to put science into action It’s not just theory,” he said. “I recommend getting internships as early as you can and start building a network. If you want to get a job (in EVs), that is how you’re going to do it.”

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