They’re ready to fit into the all-new Ford Mustang Mach-E.
They want to get their hands on the electric vehicle. They will also, OMG, hack it.
All for education.
The BEV, which debuted this year, is the latest addition to the vehicle enclosure from 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) west of Detroit, the epicenter of the US automotive earthquake. Ann Arbor becomes Michigan’s Silicon Valley, with a major international R&D center for automakers such as Toyota and Hyundai.
WCC, with approximately 20,000 students, trains and guides the next-generation automotive workforce, currently focused on electric vehicles and mobility spaces, said Brandon Tucker, WCC associate vice president of workforce and community development.
Disassembling the Mustang Mach-E’s electronic components and hacking are part of the learning process for WCC automotive technology students. (Students then reinstalled the propulsion system. And the hack was in the name of cybersecurity.)
“The Mach-E was a shiny new modern vehicle in all its glory, but for us it was a teaching instrument,” Tucker told WardsAuto. “We now have real live computers on wheels to work with. It is also an opportunity to show students how EVs compare to internal combustion engines, which remains the main focus of our training.”
The school used state funds to purchase the Mach-E, which provides hands-on cross-functional learning opportunities for job holders regarding the next generation of EVs.
The training includes:
- Evaluate functional performance and driving range; diagnostic; servicing of 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 specific components to provide light weight recommendations aimed at increasing driving range.
The WCC Advanced Transportation Center was founded in 2014 with a $10 million investment to train students and meet the needs of the transportation and mobility manufacturing industry. It focuses on three areas: automotive servicing, technology, and testing.
“This center started in large part because the auto entrepreneurs we work with told us, ‘Mobility isn’t coming, it’s here,’” Tucker (image, bottom left) say.
About 1,000 students are enrolled in this program. After graduation, many of them will become auto dealership technicians. That’s good news for dealers who have struggled for years with a shortage of quality mechanics.
Local dealers are on the WCC advisory board. Some of the auto program’s part-time instructors are dealer personnel, Tucker said. “They are dealer auto technicians by day and auto technology instructors by night.”
Some graduates are expected to enter cybersecurity and EV charging station maintenance.
There are about 1,000 charging stations in Michigan today. As EVs become more common, that number is expected to rise to 80,000. The federal government calls for a nationwide network of 500,000 EV charging stations by 2030.
“Imagine the career opportunities in repairing and maintaining all of that,” said Tucker.
“We are excited to have one of the newest battery electric vehicles to train our students for the jobs of the future,” said WCC President Rose B. Bellanca. “This is a major step in our commitment to preparing highly skilled workers and filling 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 and development of connected and automated vehicle products.
WCC is the only community college in the group. Other members include the University of Michigan, Purdue University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Akron and Central State University (OH).
Students majoring in automotive WCC come from various backgrounds. Some of them are basically gear shifters with a lifelong interest in cars. “Others fell into it,” said Tucker.
Alexander Spencer, age 22, is in the first category. “I’ve always been interested in cars,” he told WardsAuto. He works on his own vehicle, taking an analytical approach. For example: “I’m going to fix a ball joint and wonder, ‘Why is this part broken?’”
He plans to work for the automaker on product validation testing. He is in the third year of a four-year program where he will attend the nearby Eastern Michigan University as a senior, graduating with a bachelor’s degree.
Spencer (photo, left) interested in the prospect of autonomous vehicles that provide transportation needs for the elderly and disabled people who cannot drive. He describes himself as Gen Z “who wants to make an impact on society.”
WCC Transportation Technology and Cybersecurity faculty members enhance academic programs around the new Mach-E.
They will demonstrate at the cybersecurity cell phone hacking desk demonstration September 21-22 at Motor Bella, the inaugural event intended to be a Detroit 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 vehicle internal networks and infotainment systems.
In 2020, the college was designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education through the National Security Agency.
Second-year student Anne Inman, 21, is in a cybersecurity program and plans to enter the high-tech field, following in her mother’s footsteps.
“He went back to college to improve himself, and has a cybersecurity degree from Utica College,” Inman (image, bottom left) her mother said. “Her journey and passion have greatly inspired my own journey into this ever-evolving field.”
He said WardsAuto cybersecurity is a “big scope” industry with new threats emerging every day. “There is and will always be a need for passionate people in this industry.”
It may seem ironic to teach people how to hack so they can professionally thwart potential hackers.
The alleged risk is that the WCC could inadvertently end up training a future type of mad scientist in the art of hacking, rather than educating someone to serve cybersecurity needs.
The latter, said Tucker, “is our goal.”
Inman cites a big difference between criminal hacking and “ethical hacking.”
Steve Finlay is a retired senior editor of WardsAuto. He can be reached at [email protected].