Future of Travel

Student-led groups are preparing college grads for the new auto age

We sat down with the head of UC Riverside’s Formula SAE team to learn about the barriers facing aspiring EV makers.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

The future of transportation is electric, and that reality is impacting everything from where and how automakers are recruiting talent to the types of stakeholders taking charge of pipeline development.

Higher education, of course, has a major role to play in preparing the workforce for electrification, and not just through course development and arranging internship opportunities—but through extracurriculars. Take Formula SAE: The collegiate engineering competition, in which teams design and build cars, has had an all-electric competition since 2013, and it draws students to a racetrack in Michigan each year to put their work to the test.

“In this club, I’ve learned way more than I’ll learn in college, to be frank with you,” UC Riverside mechanical engineering student Grayson Young said.

Highlander Racing, UC Riverside’s Formula SAE team, first started developing electric vehicles in 2019, according to Young, the team’s president. At that time, Highlander Racing was still creating internal combustion vehicles in parallel, but Young said the team has since transitioned to a 100% EV focus.

“It directly aligns with what the market is doing,” Young explained. “We want to do that as a student team, and really help these new engineers come into the market and be able to directly transfer all the knowledge that they’ve learned in Highlander Racing directly to what the market wants, so that they can get jobs much easier that way.”

An electric vehicle created by the Highlander Racing team.

Highlander Racing

Barriers to entry: Despite the buzz around electric transport (from companies, consumers, and the public sector alike), the school-to-EV workforce pipeline isn’t as smooth as one might think, Young said.

First, there’s a resource barrier. Highlander Racing, for example, doesn’t receive funding from the university, but instead relies on fundraising, Young explained. And with the high price tag of EV components, that’s not always enough.

“I’ve seen multiple [clubs] stop or have to take a year off because they don’t have the funding or the support in the university,” Young said.

But it’s not just schools or EV makers that can help prop up industry-focused student groups.

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“Sometimes we underestimate university students and high school students,” said Christina Rebel, co-founder and chief growth officer at open-source manufacturing platform Wikifactory, which partners to offer free use of its tools to a handful of FSAE teams, including Highlander Racing.

“High school students already know how to do what engineers five years ago used to learn in universities…because the information is accessible, people are learning these skills themselves,” Rebel explained.

Wikifactory already had sponsorship programs for certain education and R&D initiatives when Young reached out to get a demo, she said. “We found it a wonderful way of engaging that future talent, which grows up very quickly.”

Wikifactory’s own engineers, board members, and investors include FSAE alumni, Rebel added. “Our bet is on that next generation, and whatever they need to grow, without limitations, we offer that, and we know they’re going to be in the cool companies and startups in the future.”

But between students and their future careers is also a knowledge gap to overcome, Young said.

“Our curriculum is not made for this current generation of EVs and the current engineering workflow,” he explained, adding that his hands-on work on auto parts through Highlander Racing is more specific to what he plans to work on after college.

For example, though Altium (electronic design software) is “widely used in the industry,” many members’ introduction to the software is through Highlander Racing, Young said.

Many of the club’s engineers aspire to work at the “big names” in the EV world—Tesla, Rivian, or Lucid, for example, he added. And Formula SAE competitions, where automakers often have booths, and some do interviews on-site, are a direct entry point.

“A lot of the previous leads for projects have gone directly into Tesla,” he explained. “They’ve directly worked on the Cybertruck, directly worked on the Semi…so there’s a direct pipeline from what we’re doing at Highlander Racing…that’s exactly what these companies are looking for.”

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Tech Brew informs business leaders about the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts and more to help them make smart decisions.