Automotive Engineer

What is an Automotive Engineer?

Automotive engineering is one of the most exciting, challenging and rewarding careers. Whenever a customer drives a new vehicle off a dealership lot, he or she is taking with them the technical expertise of many engineers, but in particular, the automotive engineer.

Automotive engineers research, design and develop vehicles and their subsystems. They work with sophisticated technologies to create products that thrill the senses and bring the freedom of mobility to the world.

What Do Automotive Engineers Do?

Automotive engineers are concerned with the development of passenger cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles or off-road vehicles. They do one or more of the following:

  • Design new products or modify existing ones
  • Troubleshoot and solve engineering problems
  • Plan and design manufacturing processes

Automotive engineers must apply their engineering skills in a commercial way because their innovations and solutions must be effective and profitable. Their typical responsibilities include:

  • Researching, designing, developing and producing vehicles and components
  • Preparing cost estimates and design specifications
  • Preparing plans and drawings
  • Analyzing energy, environmental and safety aspects of the planned project
  • Predicting vehicle or component behavior under different conditions using computerized models
  • Developing testing procedures
  • Investigating product failures
  • Analyzing, interpreting and condensing technical data into reports or presentations
  • Supervise technical staff
  • Working closely with other types of engineers, such as civil, electrical, aerospace, chemical and industrial
  • Working with professionals from other occupational fields, such as marketing and legal


Any pre-engineering student should have a strong background in advanced calculus, physics and chemistry to succeed at the collegiate level. Good grades and a high level of hands-on experience at the undergraduate level are important to landing a job after graduation. Because vehicles today are designed and developed in a virtual world and are basically “computers on wheels,” it is a real advantage to have a strong appreciation of computer science.

In addition to academic qualifications, the automotive engineer should have:

  • An avid interest in motor vehicle engineering
  • Solid analytical skills and an creative approach to problem solving
  • A thorough understanding of technical concepts and federal safety standards and laws
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills
  • The ability to prioritize and plan effectively
  • The ability to stay within a budget and meet deadlines
  • Soft skills, such as the ability to work in teams to solve problems
  • The ability to work independently

Automotive Engineer Degrees and Specialties

Very few universities and colleges in the United States offer bachelor’s degrees in automotive engineering. Consequently, many students go into mechanical engineering because automotive engineering is a specialty of mechanical engineering and much of the coursework is the same. However, there are some mechanical engineering schools that offer undergraduate courses that cover diesel engine theory, automotive electronics and automotive power systems.

At the master’s degree and Phd levels, students can concentrate on specific areas, such as:

  • Automotive mechanical functions
  • Automotive systems studies
  • Hybrid electric cars

Students should choose a graduate engineering program that will not only enhance their education but will also help them to lead, innovate and manage in a global economy. Automotive engineers with graduate degrees are in high demand by automotive manufacturers and suppliers.

Jobs and Compensation for Automotive Engineers

Currently, the cities with the highest paying automotive engineering jobs are Auburn Hills, Michigan and Detroit, Michigan. The states with the heaviest concentration of automotive engineers are Michigan, California and Texas.

According to the Society of Automotive Engineers International (SAE), the average total cash compensation for automotive engineers in 2012 was $117,600. This was about a ten percent jump from 2010. The SAE also reported that the 25th to 75th percentile range of total cash compensation for automotive engineers 2011 was $83,500 to $134,200. The salary range for automotive engineering jobs in the most popular industries are:

  • Automotive Manufacturing $54,000 – $96,000
  • Original Equipment Manufacturing $50,000 – $89,000
  • Systems & Components Manufacturing $51,000 – $92,000
  • Engine Manufacturing $50,000 – $91,000

Automotive Engineering Associations

The SAE and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers are wonderful sources of information about the latest industry news, events, conferences and seminars. Additionally, these organizations offer great opportunities to meet with recruiters from leading automotive companies and network with other automotive engineers.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Over time, automotive engineers can enter senior-level management positions within their companies. Some gain the experience and expertise to open their own consulting engineering firms. Others take sales positions in automobile companies because they already possess the technical knowledge. Those with master’s degrees or PhDs teach and share their experiences with college engineering students.

Is Automotive Engineering Right For You?

Ask yourself the following questions in evaluating your potential to become an automotive engineer:

  • Are you interested in motor vehicles and how they work?
  • Are you a natural problem solver?
  • Do you communicate well with others and work productively in a team environment?
  • Are you comfortable leading and motivating others?
  • Are you able to multi-task and meet deadlines?
  • Are you willing to constantly learn new things?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, and you do not struggle in math and science, then you should consider pursuing a career in automotive engineering.

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