Nov 27, 2023

Navigating disruptive technology trends in the automotive industry

Prof. Paramesw Chidamparam is an associate professor at the BITS Pilani Work Integrated Learning Programmes (WILP) division. In this article, he highlights the steps needed to create a future-ready workforce for new-age mobility.

As a professor at BITS Pilani WILP, who has been entrusted with a key support role in designing and developing customized academic programmes to reskill and/or upskill working professionals in the automotive industry, I have had several opportunities to connect with multiple leading automotive Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and suppliers over the last two years. It has certainly not been surprising for me to learn about significant skill gaps predominantly driven by electrification and a wave of new and disruptive technologies.

At a recent leading HR conference in India that I attended, this topic stirred so much interest amongst the participants that the challenges (in relation to upskilling and/or reskilling) were characterized as ranging from “worrisome” down to “unsettling,” with a few even opining that the repercussions of skill gaps may degrade India into a mere hub for vehicle assembly.

Are we creating an effective automotive workforce that is future-ready?

To put the magnitude of skilling challenges in perspective, it is perhaps helpful to reflect upon the scale of the problem we are currently facing. Roughly India has a strong automotive workforce of over 25 lakh, with production volumes exceeding 2.5 crore units across all categories, with 2-wheelers contributing nearly 60% of those units. Electric vehicle (EV) adoption is expected to increase over the next few years. While this can potentially unfold a huge opportunity in job creation, are we creating a future-ready workforce?

Automakers are also concerned about factors such as dynamic shifts in consumer behaviour (for instance, shared mobility) that could potentially impact vehicle sales. Nonetheless, a domestic market, the lower cost of labour coupled with an abundant supply of workers in the pipeline, and a young workforce are all driving the Indian automotive industry toward growth and the relative need to focus more on skill development.

Two key questions to ponder about skilling and employability

How do we reskill the current young workforce to support future programs in an organization while concurrently recognizing the value of the organizational knowledge they must have acquired over their respective tenures? Secondly, how should academia support and nurture the future employability of fresh graduates?

The answer to the first question could largely be around knowledge retention and using Knowledge Management (KM) initiatives in an organization to retain and leverage organizational knowledge. The answer to the second question revolves mainly around how the industry can work with academia to develop suitable programmes that (i) enhance the industry relevance of future graduates and (ii) upskill the existing talent within the organizations.

Besides OEMs, suppliers have their unique skilling requirements

The popular “CASE” acronym that signifies Connected, Autonomous, Shared/Secured, and Electric technologies indicate the transformations and expertise expected of the future workforce.

Indeed, just like OEMs, their suppliers have specific needs to develop unique programmes for skilling their workforce. Such programmes are not limited to engineers alone but extend to the bottom of the labour pyramid. Given the pace of technology adoption, the entire ecosystem of aftermarket service and maintenance technicians needs to be adequately trained. Vehicle mechanics also need to adapt to electrification and develop expertise in diagnostics and repair of vehicles with significant electromechanical and electronic components and software

Effective industry-academia collaboration holds the key

The chief concern of almost every company has been the limited relevance of academic programmes heavily tilted towards theoretical expositions. The introduction of experiential and project-based learning components has somewhat narrowed the gap. However, there is an implicit expectation of familiarizing students with industry-scale problems requiring suitable infrastructure (testing facilities, labs, CoEs, etc.) to enable hands-on skills development — and this certainly requires a consultative approach (industry-academia collaboration) towards developing curricula.

This is especially relevant due to the interdisciplinary nature of the field today — drawing upon skills from traditional areas of automotive engineering (body structures, NVH, durability, crash, etc.) as well as from advances across areas, such as computer and information systems, power electronics, electromagnetics, thermal management in motors, inverters and converters, electromagnetic interference and compatibility (EMI/EMC), battery management systems (BMS), vehicle communication and networks, control architectures, and diagnostics. Besides the above considerations, there are data-centric concerns around automotive cybersecurity. The relevance of smart manufacturing technologies (Industry 5.0, additive manufacturing, cyber security in manufacturing, robotics, IoT, and others) was also discussed at the conference (which I referred to at the beginning of the article).

Leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) across disciplines as diverse as the control of autonomous vehicles, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), and smart manufacturing also came up for discussion.

Automotive cybersecurity will play a critical role in future vehicles. It is no longer viewed as a “good to have” skill — rather, every automotive engineer is expected to have a basic understanding of automotive cybersecurity. There are also strong views on “exercising control over data” as a key differentiator and thereby providing a competitive advantage, as organizations increasingly depend on partnership models in their quest to be cost-competitive and efficient, underscoring the need for courses, such as data security, data analysis, and decision making in the curriculum.

The creation of programmes that are win-win for various stakeholders is critical

The developments in the automotive industry are indeed interesting in that the boundaries across disciplines are blurring. This evolution is being recognized as filled with challenges for both the instructor and the learner in a class with a diverse set of students.

Regarding university education, academic requirements at a programme level are held to be sacrosanct, with freedom of choice in coursework and specializations. Also, another aspect that needs to be considered is that upskilling through short courses, workshops, and online courses does help to a certain extent but may not be as effective as well-structured and long-duration programmes.

This area can be effectively leveraged through industry-academia collaboration to create programmes that lead to a win-win situation for all the stakeholders. Not surprisingly, such collaborations can be seen to be on the rise. There have also been instances of governments incentivizing programmes for fresh graduates (by partnering with academic institutions and businesses) to address the demand for qualified professionals and thereby improve employment at a state level.

In conclusion, there are several opportunities to reskill and upskill working professionals in the automotive industry — by breaking out of rigid boundaries, providing exposure to emerging technologies through tools and skill development, and leveraging business-academia-government collaborations in forms most suited for this situation. Certainly, the innovative models that evolve over the next several years will accelerate the convergence of education, as we know it today, towards the vision of a more practical skill-based knowledge acquisition exercise.