Although the recent financial crisis has left Detroit’s Big Three scrambling to survive, a commitment between one of the struggling companies and the University might provide a small glimmer of hope for some auto industry workers.

The University’s College of Engineering has agreed to train 50 General Motors engineers on alternative powertrain technology through the Energy Systems Engineering Program, a multidisciplinary program including science, engineering and the development of policies that promote sustainable systems.

The engineers will enroll in the University’s master’s program in energy systems which focuses on three specializations: civil power, transportation power and microelectric and portable power. The program will be led by Biomedical Engineering Prof. Ann Marie Sastry.

This partnership highlights both GM’s and the University’s goals of speeding up the development of electric vehicles and improving the vehicle-grid interface, Sastry said.

“Together, UM and GM have an historic opportunity to create both the technology and the workforce, to solve the problems inherent in an IC-engine driven vehicle portfolio,” Sastry wrote in an e-mail. “And I couldn’t be more delighted that the hometown team stepped up, and that we at UM are in a position to contribute.”

After many years of working on electric vehicle batteries, Sastry said she began to notice there weren’t enough engineers to implement the technologies they were developing.

“Adjacent technology areas — power electronics, grid systems and controls — were similarly understaffed in the industry,” she said.

“The program was conceived as a way to pour needed engineers into the vehicle-grid space,” she said. “This program is a way to make sure that this time, electrification really comes to fruition, because there are enough bright, motivated engineers to realize it.”

With the addition of GM’s 50 engineers, the one-year-old program, which currently has 25 students, will triple in size. Starting in January, those enrolled in the program will take online graduate courses ranging from batteries, fuel cells and grid infrastructure to power electronics, energy finance and drivetrain technologies.

Robert Kruse, GM’s executive director of global vehicle engineering for hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries, told the Ann Arbor Business Review that the partnership between GM and the University shows the automaker is “committed to the electrification of the vehicle.”

“Dr. Sastry, as a preeminent expert in battery technologies, has unique insights on our educational needs based on her research area, and has assembled a group of faculty and students that is unmatched,” Kruse said. “Together, we aim not only to educate new workers, but to internally reposition our knowledge base around this goal, and to make a lasting impact.”

The University has a vested financial interest in GM, Detroit’s largest automaker. In 2002, the University owned 106,600 shares of GM stock. As of last year, the University of Michigan held 18,500 shares.

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