Careers and Jobs as Automotive Test Drivers

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QUICK FACTS about this job:

  • School Subjects: English, Mathematics, Technical/shop
  • Personal Skills: Mechanical/manipulative, Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Primarily outdoors, Primarily multiple locations
  • Minimum Education Level: Associates degree
  • Salary Range: $25,430 to $70,090 to $104,900+
  • Certification or Licensing: Required for certain positions
  • Outlook: More slowly than the average
  • DOT: N/A
  • GOE: N/A
  • NOC: 9482
  • O*NET-SOC: N/A

OVERVIEW

Test drivers drive, evaluate, and grade new automobiles and other vehicles before they are made available for sale to the public.They spend many hours driving their assigned model in various driving situations, climates, and speeds. As members of a new product development team, test drivers make suggestions for specific alterations to the car’s design, function, and performance. Test drivers are employed by auto manufacturers worldwide, though some may work for contractors specializing in automotive testing or development. Others work as automobile writers and reviewers for trade publications.

HISTORY

There has been a need for test drivers to ensure that vehicles perform well, are safe, and meet other performance criteria ever since the first automobile was manufactured in the late 1800s In the early days of the automotive industry, cars were tested by engineers, designers, and automotive company owners.

Early test drives were often conducted on the streets of Detroit, Michigan, the headquarters of many automotive manufacturers (many are still located there today). Charles B. King, an automotive industry pioneer, became the first per son in the United States to test drive a gasoline-powered automobile on American streets (in Detroit) on March 6, 1896. The Detroit Free Press commented the next morning: “The first horseless carriage seen in this city was out on the streets last night. It is the invention of Charles B. King, a Detroiter, and its progress up down Woodward Avenue about 11 o’clock caused a deal of comment, people crowding around it so that its progress was impeded. The apparatus seemed to work all right, and went at the rate of five or six miles an hour at an even rate of speed.”

As competition between automotive manufacturers grew and more models were produced, a need emerged for specially trained drivers who could assess the performance of vehicles under a variety of road conditions. Much of this testing took place on the highways and byways of America—allowing the public, as well as automotive competitors, to witness great successes and failures.

It soon became clear that while road testing was important, there was also a need for private testing grounds where automotive companies could test their vehicles under controlled conditions and in secret.

In 1924, General Motors established the first private proving ground, or test track, in the industry in Milford, Michigan. Other companies such as Packard, Studebaker, and Nash (later American Motors) soon followed with their own proving grounds.

Approximately two dozen proving tracks are in operation today in the United States, and test drivers continue to play an important role in the automotive industry—testing vehicles on these tracks as well as public roads and highways.

THE JOB

Automobiles have certainly come a long way in the last few decades. They run smoother, faster, and have more bells and whistles with each new model. However, before auto manufacturers can make new models available to the public, they must ensure that all new features and improvements are safe and reliable. Test drivers are employed by auto manufacturers to drive, evaluate, and grade new cars.

Their work varies depending on the task at hand. Test drivers may be assigned to evaluate the vehicle’s dynamics on different types of roads. To gauge the car’s performance and handling in high traffic, the driver may travel on highways. Rural or winding roads are often used to test how the car hugs curves and sharp turns, or its handling on rough terrain. Sometimes the driver may use controlled situations such as a closed airport runway, test track, or racing oval to test the car’s performance and mileage accumulation at extreme speeds of 150 mph or more.

Test drivers also monitor for any problems and malfunctions with the car’s mechanics such as the engine, steering, and brake systems. The driver may take note of any changes in the power and pickup during different stages of the test.

Durability is another component of a driving test. Drivers observe the wear of the car’s brakes, tires, bumpers, and other systems with time and usage. Often the car is driven through severe conditions such as damaged roads, inclement weather, and chemicals to test the NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) engineering, strength of tires and their alignment, shock absorbers, or paint finish.

Test drivers also evaluate the car’s ergonomics. They note the comfort of seats, positioning of the steering wheel, and accessibility of other controls ranging from turn signals, to heater and air-conditioning controls, to the car’s navigation tools (such as a Global Positioning System [receiver]). Drivers provide feedback on options such as the number and location of cup holders, vanity mirrors, or storage bins. Once testing is complete, drivers may meet with a team of engineers or members of the product development department to make specific changes or alterations. Test drivers may spend years working to help bring a concept design from prototype to an actual product for general consumption.

Test drivers may also participate in special tests to gauge driver fatigue or performance as a result of sleep deprivation or distractions such as cell phone usage or texting. Some auto manufacturers may use professional test drivers to participate in advertising campaigns, company videos, press release photos, or product brochures.

Test drivers can also find employment as writers and editors at publications serving the automobile industry such as Motor Trend or Car and Driver. Test drivers working in this capacity review new models of cars and compare or evaluate them against similar models offered by other manufacturers. Auto manufacturers loan publications new car models for a short period of time—usually a week. Drivers are allowed to use these cars as they would their own vehicle, keeping notes on their performance. Sometimes, drivers are allowed to drive a model for up to a year to review the car’s long- term functionality and reliability.

Test drivers who are employed in publishing often have access to new car models a few months before the general public to allow for the lead time needed for writing, editing, and publishing the review. Auto manufacturers try to maintain good relationships with trade publications as a favorable review is valuable for future car sales.

REQUIREMENTS

High School

Taking auto mechanics courses is a great way to prepare for a career in test driving. It’s important to know the mechanics of a car before pushing it to its limits. You’ll also want to do well in your driver’s education program as test drivers put safety and rules of the road before speed during any driving test.

Test drivers need strong communication skills to be able to convey their test data and observations to team members after every test. You can hone these skills by taking speech or writing classes. Take writing class or any classes that require writing projects—especially if you want to work on the editorial side of auto test driving.

Postsecondary Training

Many successful test drivers are mechanical engineers with a back ground in automotive engineering. Others have degrees in automotive technology. Additional classes in auto design or manufacturing will also be helpful. If you aspire to write for an industry trade magazine, a degree in journalism, while not necessary, will give you an edge over other employment candidates.

Certification and Licensing

A valid driver’s license is a prerequisite for employment in this field, as well as a clean driving record.

One major automotive manufacturer, Ford Motor Company, offers an in-house certification program to ensure that its drivers are property trained and able to handle vehicles at top speeds. The Electronic Driver Certification Tracking System, EDCERTS, is a four- tiered program that qualifies drivers at various skills, tracks, and speeds. Tier 1 is equivalent to public road driving. Tier 2, according to Ford, “is designed for a Ford engineer to drive a vehicle and simultaneously record objective and subjective data for a procedural test measurement.” Tier 3 drivers have the ability to “drive at or close to its ultimate limit and road holding capability during chassis development tests to allow a rational assessment and analysis of its behavior.” Tier 4, the highest level, certifies drivers to perform extreme maneuvers on any type of track or road at speeds of 200 mph or higher.

Other Requirements

A good test driver will know the mechanics of a car—its power to-weight ratio, how quickly it changes gears, and how an engine reacts and sounds at various levels of performance. This knowledge is essential in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of a car’s design. Test drivers must have a high tolerance for long periods behind the wheel. They often spend many hours driving their assigned cars in difficult situations and at top speeds. Drivers need to stay focused, have presence of mind, and excellent reflexes to avoid potentially dangerous accidents and crashes

A passion for cars and expert driving abilities are not the only skills needed for this career. Test drivers working on the editorial side must have, along with automotive expertise, the ability to write proficiently. While a journalism background is not a prerequisite for this job, candidates with a writing background will certainly have an edge.

EXPLORING

If you are of age, get your driver’s license to gain experience driving on roads and highways. If you are still too young for a driver’s license, don’t despair as you can hone your driving skills in other ways. Visit a go-karting venue and test your driving performance navigating around other drivers and tricky hairpin turns. Computer and video driving-oriented games will also provide a good introduction to the field.

As you get older, you may want to tinker around with your own car. It’s a great way to know how a finely tuned car works and runs. Don’t forget to browse trade publications such as Road & Track (http://www.roadandtrack.com) for car and performance reviews— you’ll become familiar with what drivers look for when testing a new model.

Another way to explore this industry is by attending auto shows. You will be able to see new vehicles, as well as prototypes of cars of the future.

EMPLOYERS

Test drivers are employed by major auto manufacturers. Coveted spots include working as high performance drivers for the Big Three automakers—Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors—though many test drivers vie for positions with major foreign manufacturers such as BMW, Toyota, and Ferrari. Some test drivers are employed by automotive publishing companies.

STARTING OUT

Don’t expect to ‘be drag racing a Ford GT Supercar on a closed air strip on your first day of work. Rather, you may be asked to perform basic tests on how well individual systems work, such as the heating and cooling system or the braking system. Or you may assist in setting up a racing course or other testing site. New test drivers are often assigned lower-end cars, or less demanding test routes such as highways or local roads.

ADVANCEMENT

With enough experience, test drivers may be promoted to head driver for an auto manufacturer. Head drivers often test the higher end, luxury models or may be asked to race a manufacturer’s concept or muscle car models. Seeking employment at a larger manufacturer or one specializing in exotic cars, such as Ferrari or Aston Martin, is another form of career advancement.

Test drivers working in the publishing industry can find employment with larger magazines, or may seek additional freelance opportunities for Web sites, e-zines, or local papers.

EARNINGS

The U.S. Department of Labor (USDL) does not provide salary information for test drivers. Some test drivers have backgrounds in mechanical engineering. The USDL reports that mechanical engineers employed in motor vehicle parts manufacturing earned mean annual wages of $70,090 in 2006. Salaries for all mechanical engineers ranged from less than $44,170 to $104,900 or more in 2006.

Writers earned salaries that ranged from less than $25,430 to more than $97,700 in 2006, according to the USDL. Earnings of technical writers ranged from less than $35,520 to $91,720 or more.

Benefits for full-time workers include vacation and sick time, health, and sometimes dental, insurance, and pension or 401(k) plans. Self-employed test drivers must provide their own benefits.

WORK ENVIRONMENT

Test drivers spend the majority of their work day behind the wheel of a car. They are often assigned to drive various types of roads to gauge the car’s performance in different situations. Travel is sometimes necessary if the car is manufactured abroad. After a performance test, drivers may meet other team members in an office setting to give reports or brainstorm new alterations. Test drivers writing for a trade publication may take notes during performance testing for use when writing their articles or new product reviews.

Work conditions can occasionally be hazardous. Test drivers often drive their vehicles at top speeds in difficult terrain or less than-optimal weather conditions. It’s important that drivers take every step to protect themselves from injury by wearing seat belts or other protective gear such as helmets, driving gloves, and fireproof clothing.

OUTLOOK

Automobile manufacturers will continue to create new models and improve upon existing vehicles, making them faster, more manage able, and better performing. New models must be thoroughly tested before being made available to the public, so employment opportunities for test drivers will continue to be good—although this is a very small field. Trade magazines will also continue to need good writers with knowledge of the industry and automotive technology for their print publications and Web sites.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For information on careers in the automotive industry, contact

SAE International

400 Commonwealth Drive

Warrendale, PA 15096-0001

Tel: 877-606-7323

http://automobile.sae.org

For information on a career as a test driver and test-driving facilities, contact the following automotive companies:

BMW: http://www.bmw.com

Chrysler LLC: http://www.chrysler.com

Ford Motor Company: http://www.ford.com

General Motors Corporation: http://www.gm.com

Toyota Motor Sale: http://www.toyota.com

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