Automotive electricians are responsible for installing, testing, and maintaining electrical and electronic systems in vehicles. They may work in the manufacturing of cars, trucks, buses, trains, and trolleys, or be employed as maintenance technicians with dealerships or fleet operators of these types of vehicles. They work primarily with low-voltage systems but ones that require a high degree of reliability and which must often function in hostile conditions.
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Automotive electrical specialists usually work for vehicle makers or large-scale operators of vehicle fleets, like trucking companies or transit systems. Car dealerships may also employ automotive electricians as specialists that know the ins and outs of the electrical systems in the particular car makes they sell and maintain.
Wiring Goes Everywhere In Modern Vehicles
Most privately-owned vehicles – the cars and trucks we all drive – have electrical systems that are simple enough that a regular mechanic can handle most maintenance or troubleshooting issues. Exceptions to this are the advanced electronics systems that have become popular – even standard – in cars and trucks from many manufacturers: Bluetooth phone connections, or integrated GPS and communications systems like GM’s OnStar.
More routinely, automotive electricians find themselves dealing with systems like:
- Electronic ignition
- Electronic fuel injection and transmissions
- Anti-lock braking
- Anti-theft systems
- Lighting and vehicle instrumentation
- Supplemental restraint systems (airbags)
- Heating and air conditioning
Automotive electricians have the luxury of only having to deal with a maximum of two different voltages, 12 volts or 24 volts. Only larger vehicles like buses or trucks, or electric-drive vehicles, go beyond 12 volts.
The Unique Challenges of Vehicle Wiring
Vibration and heat are the two major problems that vehicle wiring systems face.
Putting a reliable electrical system into a vehicle that is going to be driving in all weather, bouncing over potholes, and through dust and grime is a challenge.
Mitigating the Impact of Heat and Abrasion
To cope, automotive electricians use heavily insulated wire and often work with stranded, rather than solid-core, wiring, which is less brittle. They learn how to become adept at routing wire harnesses in spaces where they will not be subject to chafe or extreme temperatures. They also use cable holders to create slack in wires to allow some give when the vehicle bounces along down the road.
Standard and Not-So-Standard Tools
Automotive electricians spend a lot of time putting holes in metal panels to route wire bundles, so they also work with drills and grinders frequently. They also have to disassemble vehicle components to access electrical systems, so they are very familiar with drivers, wrenches, and the other common tools used by auto mechanics. Their test equipment is often extremely advanced and may be specialized to particular makes of vehicle.
With the introduction of electric-drive cars, automotive electricians have also begun to verge back into mechanical systems. The electric motors on those vehicles connect directly to the drive train and braking systems, introducing considerable complexity, and more than 250 volts of electricity, into the equation. Heavy-duty wiring and working with major structural members is required on such vehicles.
The works is not all hands-on, however. Because vehicle wiring is both intricate and hidden, automotive electricians have to understand and spend time reading wiring schematics, which tell them where to look in the vehicle to find particular wires or systems.
Electric Transit Systems
A specialized version of transportation wiring is for electrified trolleys or streetcars. These are some of the few vehicle systems that operate at high voltages, usually 600 volts in a direct current system. The electricity is delivered either via rails in the street of by an overhead wire grid stretching through the service area. Transportation electricians responsible for servicing such systems have an additional burden of education and certification since they often work overhead like electrical lineman.
Lighting and other aspects of vehicle operation are subject to state and federal regulations. Automotive electricians are required to ensure that vehicles they work on comply with all relevant laws regarding:
- Internal and external lighting and visibility
- Emissions systems probe and sensor wiring
- Braking system testing and function
Becoming an Automotive or Transportation Electrician
Automotive electricians often gain their skills individually, learning by working on cars as mechanics and gradually developing advanced expertise in the electrical systems. Over time, mechanics with an aptitude for electrical wiring gravitate into the electrician specialty, which is better paying and has more secure job prospects than general mechanic work.
Standard Apprenticeship and Licensing
Auto manufacturers, dealers and large transit system employers might also hire candidates working through an electrician apprenticeship system, such as those found through the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee. Such positions require state licensing after candidates work their way up from apprentice to journeyman to master electrician status over a period of years, undergoing supervision and extensive training as they climb the ladder.
Trade Schools and Community Colleges
Trade schools are another route into the transportation electrical field. Community colleges often have various automotive technician programs, and some have specialized certificates dealing specifically with automotive electrical systems.
OSHA Certification (as needed)
Candidates who hope to find work with a transit system with overhead electrical distribution to trolley buses or streetcars might want to earn the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) 10-hour Transmission and Distribution certification before applying. This is a certification typically required over electrical linemen, but since so much of the work of maintaining a trolley grid involves overhead wires, the same qualifications apply. Additional state or local certifications may also be necessary for those positions.
Commercial Driver’s License
Employers who hire electricians to work on big rigs or buses might also prefer candidates who have earned a Class B or better Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).
Automotive and Transportation Electrician Salaries
Automotive electrician jobs have a wide salary range depending on the type of systems they are working with and their employer.
Electricians working with high-end manufacturers or for transit maintenance companies can make a good living as shown in these listings (pay rates taken from job ads listed in August 2016; shown as illustrative examples only):
- New Jersey Transit Electrician – $20.98 – $26.23/hour
- Emergency Medical System electrical installer in Houston with Frazer EMS – $12/hour
- Electrician with Emergency Vehicle Outfitters in California – $18/hour
- Bay Area Rapid Transit electrician in San Francisco – $30.76/hour
The degree to which modern vehicles rely on their electrical systems will only increase, making the automotive electrical field likely to remain an important part of the transportation sector for years to come.