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Mich. Tech Program on Cutting Edge of Hybrid-Electric Transition

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Sept. 15, 2020—In the upper areas of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a rare program at Michigan Technological University is studying and training the foundations for the electrified vehicle future.

The Hybrid Electric Vehicle curriculum at Michigan Tech is both a graduate certificate program and a professional development pathway for engineers. The course provides an interdisciplinary look at the systems that propel electric and hybrid-electric vehicles, which are taking over the automotive industry with billions of dollars in OEM investments.

The program started in the midst of the Great Recession. Michigan Tech partnered with General Motors to develop a curriculum to train engineers who had lost jobs. Later, the program grew with grant funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“As part of the Recovery Act, there were funds of money through the Department of Energy to essentially retrain, and specifically retrain in this,” says graduate program director Jeff Naber. “And given that we had just done this large program, it was a great fit for us.”

That growth included the development of a mobile trailer lab that can be deployed anywhere that students or engineers need.

While the program works with off-road, heavy duty, defense and other applications for hybrid technology, Naber spoke with ADAPT about the light duty vehicle market.


Industry Trends

When the program started, hybrids were really coming into fashion, particularly in the form of the Toyota Prius. There were few fully electric vehicles out at the time, and virtually no mass-produced models.

“The design has shifted,” Naber says. “There were really no EVs out at that time.”

Hybrid drivetrains have exploded since the start of the program, and all major automakers offer them. With that, Naber says that the numbers of people involved in designing and making hybrid systems has grown as well. That’s been good for the program, but that also means that there are lots of different OEM designs to learn.

Fully electric platforms are, at least for now, a bit less varied.

“One you get to an EV, the platforms now really don’t differ much,” Naber says. “There’s a big spread in what HEVs (hybrid-electric vehicles) and PHEVs (plugin hybrid-electric vehicles) look like in terms of their architectures.”


Looking Ahead

OEMs are committing billions of dollars and retrofitting assembly plants for an EV future. But don’t count the hybrid market out, as they’re more popular than ever and are still a big part of the conversation.

“Within that portfolio, many of them (OEMs) are including hybrid or plugin-hybrid technology,” Naber says.

He adds that the program is ready to train for a variety of electrified vehicle technologies. 

One of the interesting things about electric vehicles is that the thing that keeps engineers up at night is the same thing that consumers are looking for: battery range.

For the engineer, it’s finding ways to save power while carrying out needed features like heating and cooling the passenger compartment, Naber says. All that affects the driving range and, thus, the attractiveness for consumers.

Mainstream appeal is still a big challenge for electric vehicles, and that’s something that engineers consider as part of their work.

“Energy management is very critical in electric vehicles. Many of the underlying technologies are there, but the question really comes down to vehicle integration and development and performance—how do we design vehicles that are affordable but meet the customers’ expectations,” Naber says.

Image: Michigan Tech

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