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Automotive Engineering

It pays to be green.

By Robert Kallick

Future of your field

All it takes is a few minutes watching the evening news, and you'll undoubtedly hear how poorly the automotive industry is doing. Recently, Toyota Motor Corporation forecasted an annual loss three times greater than what it had previously projected. Toyota, the world's largest automaker, now says its first annual operating loss since 1950 will be $4.95 billion for the fiscal year. And Toyota is not alone. North American car and truck production dropped 62.2% in January to the lowest monthly total in 18 years.

So how do these industry ills affect those planning a career in the automotive engineering industry?

Going Green

A silver lining to this cloud may actually be green rather than gray, since growth in the automotive field seems to be increasingly environmentally friendly. In fact, while overall sales declined 3%, U.S. registrations of new hybrid vehicles rose 38% in 2007 to a record 350,289, according to data released by R.L. Polk & Co., a Southfield, Michigan-based automotive marketing and research company.

Terry Woychowski, a Michigan Tech alumnus and General Motors executive, believes green design needs to go even further by "reinventing the car." He says, "Some estimate that by the year 2020, there may be as many as 1.1 billion vehicles in the global auto park. To put this in perspective, placed end to end these vehicles would circle the earth 125 times. One can imagine the stress this would place on the infrastructure, societies, and global energy resources.

"In order to create a future where this situation would be a healthy and sustainable one, the automobile needs to be engineered so as to be removed from the environmental equation," Woychowski says. "This means that the car basically needs to be reinvented. For the past 100 years automobiles have basically used internal combustion engines as their prime movers, gasoline as their fuel, and they were controlled by independent mechanical systems. As the vehicles are being reinvented, they are being electrified. Their prime movers will become electric motors, fueled with electricity stored in advanced batteries. They will be controlled by highly integrated and electronically controlled systems."

This new era of automotive transportation will require plenty of engineers with strong foundations in electronic control systems, battery technologies, and advanced lightweight and strong materials. These will be areas of innovation, exploration, and invention, Woychowski says. "I believe that some of the most exciting and challenging times in the field of automotive engineering are here at our doorstep."

Living the Dream

General Motor's E-Flex Performance Engineer Nina Tortosa describes her position at the forefront of green automotive design as her dream job. Her high-pressure position focuses on developing the next plug-in car, which promises to revolutionize the automotive industry by running 40 miles without using a drop of gasoline.

Tortosa says she loves working on the cutting-edge of green automotive design. Her mission is to perfect the aerodynamics of the Chevrolet Volt—the key to delivering one of the most eco-friendly cars of our time. The car, which was unveiled this fall, is powered by an electric motor, which draws its power from on-board batteries. The batteries, in turn, are recharged by a small internal combustion engine. However, as Tortosa explains, when it comes to fuel efficiency, one cannot underestimate the importance of a car's aerodynamic design.

To do this, Tortosa spends her days not in an office like most people, but in a wind tunnel. The testing combines the sheer power of wind with the high-tech power of digital computer imaging—think Mary Poppins and her umbrella meets Pixar computer animation.

"Most people don't understand the importance of aerodynamics," says Tortosa. "Changing the vehicle design here and there can reduce drag, which then results in significantly better fuel economy.

"I spend eight hours at a time in the wind tunnel trying out different ideas on our newest concepts and production vehicles to reduce drag," she explains. "I work directly with designers and sculptors, and we have to be very creative. I have a plan of what I want to test, but as we get results that plan might change."

For those looking to work in green automotive design, Tortosa advises hitting the books. "The core of aerodynamics is math and physics—those were my favorite subjects in school. They prepared me well, as did the lab classes I took in college."

Work experience is also vital in preparing you for a successful career. "As an undergrad and grad student I took jobs working in one of the labs in the Aero department," Tortosa states. "It helped me better understand long-term research projects and also develop close relationships with the faculty. Additional projects like the solar car for Formula SAE are also useful in learning how to work on teams and working on a timeline.

"Another good preparation for me was doing four co-op assignments," she adds. "That got me exposure to the corporate world, something you just can't learn in the classroom."

Here to Stay

While going green is good for your career in the current economic climate, so is helping people keep their cars on the road longer. Maria Miller of the Universal Technical Institute (UTI) says, "According to J.D. Power and Associates, on average, consumers are keeping their vehicles four months longer in 2008 compared with 2007, up from 67 months to 71 months. So while auto sales are down significantly, the number of cars on the road today remains stable."

This means there is an increased demand for technicians to work on those cars. "The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts that the number of automotive technicians will grow 14% to more than 883,000 by 2016," Miller says.

Bob Adler, vice president of Campus Admissions at UTI explains that the University trains students in automotive, collision repair, diesel, motorcycle, and marine technical specialties. He says graduates have a wide variety of career options to consider. "Nearly half of UTI automotive graduates are hired at dealerships, while others go on to work in the racing world, independent employers, or even open their own shop.

"Some UTI graduates pursue jobs on offshore oil rigs in those positions that apply diesel engine diagnostic skills, preventive maintenance, and repair to keep platform equipment running," Adler says. "But the career opportunities aren't limited to repair work. Qualified technicians can pursue careers in research and development, parts and accessories, manufacturing and assembly, as well as insurance adjusters, designers, help desk agents, manufacturer representatives, to name a few."

Robert Kallick is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

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