They’re ready to rip into an all-new Ford Mustang Mach-E.
They want to get at its electrical-vehicle inner works. They’ll also, OMG, hack it.
All for education.
The BEV, which debuted this year, is the latest addition to the vehicle stable of Washtenaw Community College’s Advanced Transportation Center. Among other things, it offers auto technician training.
The college is in Ann Arbor, 50 miles (80 km) due west of Detroit, the U.S. automotive epicenter. Ann Arbor is becoming Michigan’s Silicon Valley, with major international R&D centers for automakers such as Toyota and Hyundai.
WCC, with a student body of about 20,000, trains and guides the next-generation automotive workforce, focusing lately on the electric-vehicle and mobility space, says Brandon Tucker, WCC’s associate vice president of workforce and community development.
The disassembly of the Mustang Mach-E’s electronic componentry and the hacking are part of the learning process for WCC’s auto technology students. (The students subsequently reassemble the propulsion system. And the hacking is in the name of cybersecurity.)
“That Mach-E is a shiny new modern vehicle in all its glory, but for us it is a teaching instrument,” Tucker tells WardsAuto. “We now have a real, live computer on wheels to work with. It’s also an opportunity to show students how the EV compares with internal-combustion engines, which remain a big focus of our training.”
The school used state funding to purchase the Mach-E, which provides hands-on, cross-functional learning opportunities for next-generation EV-related jobholders.
The training includes:
- Evaluating functional performance and driving range; diagnostics; servicing EV batteries, motors and powertrain controls and sensors; and battery charging performance.
- Cybersecurity coding to protect driver privacy and vehicle infotainment systems.
- Exploring manufacturing processes for select components to provide lightweighting recommendations aimed at increasing driving range.
WCC’s Advanced Transportation Center was established in 2014 with a $10 million investment to train students and meet the needs of the transportation and mobility manufacturing industries. It focuses on three areas: automotive servicing, technology and testing.
“The center was started largely because automotive employers we work with told us, ‘Mobility is not coming, it’s here,’” Tucker (pictured, below left) says.
About 1,000 students are enrolled in the program. Upon graduation, many of them will become car dealership auto technicians. That’s good news for dealers who have struggled for years with a chronic shortage of qualified mechanics.
Local dealers are on WCC’s advisory board. Some of the automotive program’s part-time instructors are dealership personnel, Tucker says. “They are dealership auto technicians by day and auto-tech instructors by night.”
Some graduates are expected to enter the fields of cybersecurity and EV charging station maintenance.
There are about 1,000 charging stations in Michigan today. As EVs become more mainstream that number is expected to increase to 80,000. The federal government is calling for a national network of 500,000 EV charging stations by 2030.
“Imagine the career opportunity in repairing and maintaining all of those,” Tucker says.
“We are thrilled to have one of the newest electric battery vehicles to train our students for the jobs of tomorrow,” says WCC President Rose B. Bellanca. “This is a big step in our commitment to prepare highly skilled workers and fill a much-needed talent gap,”
The college is part of the Center for Connected and Automated Transportation, a consortium of five Midwestern universities involved in research into and product development of connected and automated vehicles.
WCC is the only community college in the group. Other members are the University of Michigan, Purdue University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Akron and Central State University (OH).
Students in WCC’s automotive program come from various backgrounds. Some of them are gear heads by nature with a lifelong interest in cars. “Others kind of fall into it,” Tucker says.
Alexander Spencer, age 22, is in the first category. “I’ve always been interested in cars,” he tells WardsAuto. He works on his own vehicles, taking an analytical approach. For instance: “I’d be repairing a ball joint and wonder, ‘Why did this part break?’”
He plans to work for an automaker in product validation testing. He’s in the third year of a four-year program in which he will attend nearby Eastern Michigan University as a senior, graduating with a bachelor’s degree.
Spencer (pictured, left) is keen on the prospect of autonomous vehicles providing transportation needs for elderly and disabled people who are unable to drive. He describes himself as a Gen Zer “who wants to make an impact on society.”
WCC’s Transportation Technologies and Cybersecurity faculty members are enhancing academic programs around the new Mach-E.
They will conduct demonstrations at a cybersecurity mobile hacking workbench Sept. 21-22 at Motor Bella, an inaugural event intended to serve as Detroit’s auto show.
WCC recently expanded and upgraded its Automotive Cybersecurity Lab, which includes 12 new Umlaut workbenches – identical to those in the automotive industry – to train students in engineering and cybersecurity related to a vehicle’s internal network and infotainment system.
In 2020, the college was designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education through the National Security Agency.
Sophomore Anne Inman, 21, is in the cybersecurity program and plans to enter that high-tech field, following in her mother’s footsteps.
“She went back to college to better herself, and has a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity from Utica College,” Inman (pictured, below left) says of her mother. “Her journey and passion greatly served to inspire my own journey into this constantly evolving field.”
She tells WardsAuto cybersecurity is an industry of “massive scope” with new threats emerging daily. “There is and will always be a need for passionate people within the industry.”
It may seem ironic teaching people how to hack so they can professionally thwart potential hackers.
A presumed risk is that WCC inadvertently could end up training a future mad scientist-type in the art of hacking, versus educating someone to serve the needs of cybersecurity.
The latter, says Tucker, “is our goal.”
Inman cites a big difference between criminal hacking and “ethical hacking.”
Steve Finlay is a retired WardsAuto senior editor. He can be reached at [email protected].