Need a job? How about engineering a driverless car?

By CHAO YAN

Capital News Service

LANSING — As Michigan accelerates toward leadership in the emerging driverless car technology, industry experts say its workforce needs to catch up.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation in December allowing the public to buy and use fully self-driving cars when they are available — a package of four bills that is “leading the way in transforming the auto industry,” Snyder said in a statement.

Michigan, led by Detroit, has a 100-year history as the heart of the U.S. auto industry, but to be the first is not always easy.

“As the industry evolves and more information is available, we have a disconnection in workforce,” said Elaina Farnsworth, the chief executive officer of Mobile Comply and a member of the state’s Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Task Force.

Farnsworth said the group discovered a problem when it started analyzing skill gaps, even though Michigan has a high concentration of engineers.

Driverless cars, without steering wheels or brakes for human drivers, require many kinds of technology to come together because each one has to: know exactly where it is in the world, know exactly how close it is to objects around it, “see” potential hazards, react safely and deal with different roads, among other things.

Due to the convergence of many technologies in “intelligent transportation,” knowledge gaps are everywhere

  • professionals in the automotive industry may not have training in mobile technologies;
  • transportation professionals might lack training in connected technologies;
  • software and telecommunication carriers may not be trained in the automotive business.

“We need to partner with the universities, and to have industry partner with high schools, with the elementary schools, to be able to teach jobs that don’t even exist yet,” Farnsworth said.

In a speech Farnsworth made in 2016 to the Michigan Connected and Automated Vehicle Working Group, she said applicants with the desired skills are so hard to find that 80 percent of respondents to a study have difficulty finding talent in the region.

Jessy Grizzle, the director of Michigan Robotics, a program at the University of Michigan, said the problem lies in the lack of integrated capability to develop the industry. But that is also where the solution lies.

“Very few people master all the way from the highest level of the rules of the road through the perception layer down to the decision-making layer and controlling the engine,” Grizzle said. “There are a lot of people who specialized in a small part of that, those people are available.

“I think what’s really lacking in terms of the workforce is much more of the higher level people who can supervise the groups of specialists and help them integrate the work into a broader picture.”

Oakland County, one of the autonomous vehicle testing centers in Michigan, just released a report of the survey it did called Skills Needs Assessment Project on autonomous mobility.

The survey examined employment needs for the expanding industry by asking 50 regional employers in Southeast Michigan about their workforce related to autonomous vehicles. It found the No. 1 demand is for what it called a connected systems engineer, which is a person who is a hybrid of software engineer, system engineer and electrical engineer. This job category does not exist.

The study estimates that Southeast Michigan will have nearly 1,400 jobs each year for connected systems engineers over the next decade, averaging $43 an hour, that can’t be filled due to lack of qualified employees

“But there’s not really current training or education programs that are specific to that occupation, ” said Jennifer Llewellyn, the manager for Workforce Development Division in Oakland County. “Our goal is to help our educational programs make modifications on their curriculum or even create new programs that can provide individuals with training they need to be successful.”

Farnsworth said one possible solution is to retrain engineers for developing connected and autonomous vehicles. However, Llewellyn said this is not a sustainable strategy, as the technology is moving so quickly.

“We need a pipeline for new workers to fill these positions,” Llewellyn said. “Our goal is to make sure our young people — in high schools, in colleges — are aware of this industry and new occupations. We want to make sure we have training programs where they will be ready work right here in Oakland County.”

Lots of automakers are increasingly expanding their autonomous testing because of the supportive environment in Michigan. Ford announced plans to triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet to 30 Fusion hybrid sedans in 2017 and 90 by 2018.

But educational preparation at large universities can lag behind sudden demand increases, Grizzle said.

Grizzle said one problem is a decreasing number of students completing graduate programs. Financial incentives play a huge role, because most graduate students pay their own way.

“If you want more people who will be able to work in high tech industry, they have to stay in school, they have to be financially funded. If more funding from the National Science Foundation or the Department of Defense for fellowships for graduate students is available, it would help to accelerate the progress,” Grizzle said.

For example, the completion rate for mechanical engineering master’s degrees at the University of Michigan dropped by 56 percent from 2013 to 2016, according to the Rackham Graduate School at U-M. During same period, financial aid to master’s students decreased by 40 percent.

Meanwhile, universities and colleges are making efforts to fill the workforce gap.

This fall, Michigan Robotics will launch a course for senior and graduate students on autonomous vehicles, accommodating 300 students per semester.

“They’ll learn about what the vehicle is doing and what’s going on in the environment around it,” Grizzle said. “What’s new is to assemble huge amounts of technologies, and this course would help students integrate this knowledge into the entire picture.”