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An overview of the automotive industry

Automotive engineering: industry sector overview

Engineers in the automotive industry need to keep up with the fast-paced environment in order to satisfy customer demands.

The automotive sector encompasses both design and manufacturing. It is a global industry, in which the UK is a key player – it is the second largest producer of luxury vehicles, behind Germany. Companies must deliver on customer expectations of the brand in question, including aesthetics, smell and feel as well as technical performance, and know how these are changing around the world. They must also comply with different countries’ regulatory requirements, such as those concerning safety and CO2 emissions.

Employers in the UK include suppliers, such as GKN, Bosch and ZF, and automotive companies, such as Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Bentley and BMW. Of these, some conduct both design and manufacturing work here, while others manufacture in the UK but have their main engineering function overseas.

Trends and developments in the automotive industry

The automotive industry is seeing a move towards smart cities and autonomous, connected and electrified (ACE) vehicles. This encompasses self-driving cars, cars that connect to each other or to the world through the internet and various other technologies and, importantly, electrified vehicles. The focus on electrification in particular has triggered investment in battery technologies. When you put a large battery in a vehicle, you need to be able to manage the new, much higher voltage that now exists, so there is a call for power electronics skills.

There is still a key focus on reducing carbon emissions, for example by developing low-carbon options such as electrified vehicles or increasing efficiency by decreasing a vehicle's weight through the use of lightweight materials such as aluminium and composites. In the premium automotive sector, infotainment systems are also important, with customer expectations creating a demand for gaming, graphics and software knowledge as well as engineering expertise.

What it's like working in the automotive industry

The industry is fast-paced – a vehicle can progress from initial concept to driving off the production line in around four years, helped in part by extensive use of computer modelling and simulation.

As vehicles are such complex systems, engineers work as part of large teams. They typically also interact with suppliers and with colleagues in non-engineering roles such as finance, purchasing or HR.

In some cases they may have contact with dealership staff or customers to run focus groups, or with third-party suppliers of customer surveys. The role may involve some travel, especially if you work for a large automotive company with global operations. There is increasing potential for engineers to be sent on secondments to manufacturing plants in different countries, such as China.

Getting an engineering graduate job in the automotive industry

Formal graduate schemes are a common entry route. Later, engineers can decide whether to pursue a career path in a very technical role or in project management or people management.

The highlights of a career in the automotive industry

  • Working with engineers from the huge range of disciplines that contribute to automotive design.
  • Melding creative design and aesthetics with engineering.
  • The fast pace of the industry.

The automotive industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:

  • aerospace/aeronautical
  • automotive
  • chemical
  • control
  • electrical
  • electronics
  • environmental
  • instruments
  • manufacturing
  • materials
  • mathematics
  • mechanical
  • physics
  • power systems
  • software
  • telecoms

Always check individual employers' requirements.

Thanks to Jo Lopes, CEng FIET FIMechE, for his help with this article. Jo is head of technical excellence at Jaguar Land Rover. He has a BSc and MPhil in applied physics from the University of Wolverhampton and has worked in the automotive industry for 28 years.