If you’re considering automotive engineering jobs, you probably have a fairly straightforward idea of what to expect – and you’ve probably overlooked most of the field.
There’s a lot more to designing and building a car, truck, or motorcycle than just chassis and power trains. Let’s take a look at some of the other skills automotive engineering demands:
Aerodynamics aren’t just for airplanes. As any racing fan knows, reducing drag is a vital part of improving performance and fuel efficiency. Getting the aerodynamics right is critical to the design, matching technical performance with the look that customers expect from the brand. Every iteration of the design needs to be tested in software simulations, wind tunnels, and through prototyping. Candidates with rigorous analytical skills will find automotive engineering jobs waiting.
Modern vehicles have evolved way beyond pure mechanics. The engines are governed by embedded computer chips, constantly measuring, diagnosing and adjusting performance to deliver optimum efficiency. Fly-by-wire systems such as the one recently unveiled by Nissan and likely to be included in next year’s Infiniti G-series models may have computer-controlled steering or gear changing in place of mechanical linkages.
It doesn’t stop there. As our cars become technological playgrounds, embedded systems run the GPS, the MP3 player, and even remember your preferred seat position. Eventually, the computer will replace the driver altogether: autonomous vehicles have been on the roads for years and are close to becoming a reality. Google’s cars are already better drivers than humans, and they’re not the only ones in this race. Nissan, Toyota, Audi, Volvo, GM, Mercedes-Benz, and many others have automotive engineering jobs waiting for embedded systems specialists.
Drivers and passengers expect their vehicles to be comfortable and pleasant to drive. Ergonomics specialists design the placement and material of the seats and steering wheel, the dashboard layout, even the position of the cup holder and door handles. This isn’t merely a design job – it’s a highly technical task.
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) J1100 Interior Measurement Index sets out parameters for legroom, head room, and driving position. The H-point (hip point) has to be located correctly with respect to the interior geometry of the cabin for both safety reasons and comfort.
As well as physical comfort, we demand that our cars stay at a suitable temperature all year round. Vehicles have to cope with temperatures that can vary by up to 150°F, from the desert heat of Bahrain to the winters of Maine. That means not just heating and air conditioning, but being able to deal with humidity and iced up windows.
Lastly, on the subject of comfort, there’s noise. As we drive, we usually like to be able to talk and listen to music. So first, the acoustic engineers need to reduce the noise of the engine and tires coming into the cabin, and then they need to optimize the acoustics inside the vehicle so that the occupants can hear each other and the music can be heard by the passengers without deafening the driver. In some performance vehicles, the acoustic engineer’s job is actually to create a satisfying engine noise, delivering a thrilling growl when you open the throttle, and a throaty purr as you cruise along the highway.
The combustion engine is here to stay, for a while longer, but consumers are demanding increasingly fuel-efficient and cleaner vehicles. Some of this comes from the engine and car design, but the fuel itself is also a factor. Fuel companies are constantly developing modifications to both gas and diesel, aiming to reduce manufacturing costs, reduce fossil fuel use, reduce emissions, and generate more energy per gallon. Automotive engineering jobs in research may focus on new ways to power cars, from the emerging electric and LPG vehicles, to hydrogen fuel cells such as those being developed by Bryan Pivovar’s team at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Lab’s Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF).
Tires are the connection between your vehicle and the road. They determine how fast you accelerate, how fast you travel, how well you take corners, and how quickly you can stop. Tire companies such as Bridgestone are developing tires that increase grip, last longer, and, increasingly, use sustainable materials.
You may be surprised at the complexity and technology that goes into automotive paint. It’s not just there to look pretty: it also has to be long-lasting, chip-resistant, and protect your vehicle from rust and corrosion. Applying paint is in itself a complex task: Hyundai uses an astonishing eleven coats of primer in an electrically charged bath before starting on the actual painting.
Paint manufacturers such as Eastwood are also evaluating water-based paints to reduce the environmental impact from urethane and acrylics, and the Urban Research Group at the University of Southern Mississippi are developing self-healing paint that actually cleans itself and repairs scratches.
Materials and Recycling
Several times, we’ve touched on the environmental impact of the automotive industry. Materials scientists employed by car and component manufacturers identify ways to make vehicles and parts more recyclable when they reach the end of their working life. This isn’t limited to the obvious parts such as the engine and body: this EPA research project looked into how to recycle the 75,000,000 lbs of paint sludge produced each year and reuse it to create automotive sealants.
Manufacturing Process Design
And lastly, there’s a whole range of skills involved in actually building the vehicles. Assembly line engineering is increasingly sophisticated, contributing in part to the creation of a new engineering discipline – the mechatronics engineer. Most automobiles are built almost entirely by machines, supervised by humans. Those machines need to be designed, built, and maintained. They need to be safe, reliable, and cost-effective – providing the design challenge of being fast, cheap and good!
The range of automotive engineering jobs out there is immense. You can spend your entire life designing and building cars without ever encountering a carburetor, O-ring, or gearbox. You may never pick up a wrench or get your hands covered in oil. Next time you go somewhere, take a look around your car at all the different components and design elements, from the seat belts to the stereo. Somebody had to create every one of those.
It could be you.
Featured image credit: Rob Bulmahn