A modern car is an advanced piece of technology that outweighs the Apollo 11 guidance computer (that helped put men on the moon) in processing power. New vehicles now have more in common with computers than ever before. Over the last 30 years, the amount of computer-based technology - compared with mechanical systems - making up the average car has increased from nothing to more than 45 per cent. And this rise is showing no signs of slowing down.
To cope with this, the role of the mechanic has evolved from mechanical repair to one that is highly technological, and in fact those workers are now called technicians in the automotive sector.
Life for technicians is incredibly challenging. As technology continues to evolve, they must learn continuously to keep up with new developments. There is not a one-stop programme in which a technician picks up everything they need at once, but a life-long process. "Technicians need to have an increasingly broad base of knowledge of how vehicles' complex components work and interact, as well as the ability to work with electronic diagnostic equipment and traditional hand tools," says Steve Walker, career development manager at Training 2000, a Lancashire-based Centre of Vocational Excellence.
Using highly specialised diagnostic equipment, technicians are able to monitor and diagnose key areas of a vehicle to ensure they are working correctly, from engines to exhaust emission levels. These high-tech gadgets - some hand-held, others the size of small fridges - are invaluable tools in a technician's problem-solving arsenal. Many provide automatic updates to technical manuals and access to manufacturers' service information, keeping technicians up-to-date on new developments. But it's not just a simple process of plugging a car into a diagnostic unit. If the wrong data is applied, serious damage could be done to a very expensive vehicle.
Advanced, ecological technologies - such as hybrid powertrains that combine an internal combustion engine with an electric motor - place high demands on technicians, who must have expert knowledge of how the systems work. The role of a technician is also critical to the safety of the people riding inside, as airbags, seatbelt restraints and blind-spot warning systems must be regularly checked by trained technicians.
So what do these technological developments mean for the future? "The job of a technician will be an ever more challenging, rewarding and exciting career; a career in which the gadget enthusiast can rest assured that they will be first to get their hands on all the new technologies as they become part of the modern motor vehicle," says Walker.
INSPECT A GADGET
The emerging technologies to watch out for...
Instead of developing different models with different engines, engine-management software will determine how each vehicle performs, from basic specifications to V8s and turbo. In this way, engine performance can be tailored to suit each customer.
If someone breaks into a car, a heartbeat sensor will detect their presence. It then sends a signal to the owner giving them the option of activating a panic button.
Downloadable roadside assistance
Vehicles can be wirelessly networked with central service stations across the country. These can then continuously monitor a vehicle and provide updates to its key systems, fixing many problems while it is on the road.
Replacement vehicle parts will be produced on site using the next generation of rapid prototyping printer technology, building an exact 3D, physical copy using a central manufacturer's database.