The Decline in Interest and Knowledge of the Automobile

Popping the Hood on Modern Society’s Lack of Know-how around Cars

Introduction

A combination effect of the increasing complexity of cars and a failing system of vocational education in America has left younger generations without any basic automotive knowledge and left mechanics in dire need of workers. For the past century, cars have played an integral part in American society and culture. Since the introduction of the Ford Model T and its internal combustion engine in 1908, the car rapidly became a staple for almost every American family. In 2019, Ford sold more than 2.4 million cars in the U.S. alone. While it is quite obvious that cars are more prevalent today than they were in 1908, people seem to know less and are less interested in the machines that are a part of nearly everyone’s everyday life. From changing oil to just being able to pop a hood, people are more frequently taking their car to professionals to fix any issues that may arise rather than relying on personal know-how. This trend tracks with the current shortage of mechanics available for hire by independent shops as well as dealerships. 

Skills for the Youth

According to the California Department of Education, only 551 of California’s 3,892 high schools offered auto skills classes in 2017. This is around just 14% of high schools both public and private offering any kind of vocational auto skills. The California Department of Education shows that enrollment in auto skills classes has been in decline for the past 30 years.  This trend is reflected across the country according to the U.S. Department of Education, and is concurrent with the decline in other vocational courses being offered in high schools. 

The World of the Modern Mechanic, or Automotive Technician

The lack of interest in entering a career as a professional mechanic is perhaps explainable if one looks at the day-to-day work environment of a modern mechanic. Today’s cars are more complex than ever, and mechanics must deal with not only mechanical components but an expanse of software aspects. According to carparts.com, this means that automotive technicians must know more than ever while being paid relatively stagnant wages. This system of payment is known as the flat-rate system. This is where mechanics are paid by the job, depending on the amount of time that job is expected to take. Each individual job’s expected completion time is detailed in a standardized labor guide. The result of this is a highly skilled job that does not guarantee pay. The difficulty of the job and the disparity of pay discourages people who are not already invested in cars and how they work from entering the field. 

The Current State of Private Auto Skills 

The current predicament of automotive technicians is mirrored by the current state of personal know-how surrounding cars. After interviewing 20 random people between the ages of 18 and 30 about their knowledge of their personal car, it was found that only 7, or 35%, knew where to find the hood latch in their car. Around 20% knew how to change a tire and where to put coolant. The percent of the interviewees that knew how to change their oil was even lower at just 5%.  

These results contrasted greatly with the results from interviewees over the age of 45. After interviewing 10 people over the age of 45, nine knew how to pop their hood, 10 knew how to change a tire, seven knew how to add coolant and six knew how to change the oil in their cars. These questions were chosen as the above procedures are generally the same regardless of a car’s make or model year. 

While doing the interviews, it was very clear the interviewees above the age of 45 knew more about their automobiles in general. This could be attributed to the fact that these interviewees are much more likely to have researched their own automobile and paid for it themselves in comparison to younger people. However, the younger group did not have basic knowledge such as the type of engine their car had or what the various driving modes in their car did. 

The Rise and Fall of the Manual Transmission

The Long History of the Stick

The manual transmission came hand-in-hand with the advent of the automobile, although in the beginning it was simply known as a transmission. The first automatic transmission was patented in 1921, although they were not commonplace in cars until much later due to the increased cost. A manual transmission was nearly standard until the 1950’s, when automatic transmissions became seen as a premium feature and more prominent in passenger cars. Today, less than 20% of cars are manuals and that number is continuing to drop according to the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago Tribune also shows that manual transmissions are far more prevalent outside of the U.S.

Of the 20 people interviewed under the age of 30, only 2, or 10%, knew how to drive a true manual car. This is incredibly low in comparison to the 7 out of 10 people over the age of 45 who knew how to operate a stick. 

The Other Side of the Coin: The Current State of Car Culture

Given the results of how young people interact and view their cars, it would seem odd that car culture, a staple in American society, would thrive in the modern era.  However, the opposite is true. Today’s petrol heads and grease monkeys have immersed themselves in their hobby through the internet and have become more connected with those like them around the world. Automotive journalism seems to have shifted to platforms such as YouTube with channels such as Doug Demuro and The Smoking Tire garnering millions of subscribers. Automotive Instagram pages are also thriving. Ranging from serious car journalism with pages like Petrolicious to car related humor in pages like Car Throttle. These pages achieve millions of followers. 

While car culture may not be as widely prevalent as it was in previous decades, car enthusiasts find themselves more connected than ever through social media. Today it is easier than ever to find people who share your interests, and car enthusiasts have capitalized on this, allowing for massive events such as Cars and Coffee and the Amelia Island Concours. 

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the first car club, Carolina Cars, was founded just two years ago. The club has been steadily growing since its inception and today has more than 160 members. These new car clubs starting at campuses around the world show that car culture is not completely dying alongside the average person’s general interest in cars. 

What a Car Means to Someone Who Loves Cars

Max Nunez, the president of Carolina Cars, speaks about what his 1998 manual Honda Prelude means to him, as well as what cars and car culture has done for him. 

Max Nunez – Carolina Cars’ President Shares his Thoughts on what a Car Means

Cars are an undeniable part of everyone’s life. Even though not everyone owns a car, they have had relationships and memories in them. And while the internal combustion engine may be on its way out along with fossil fuels, the idea of a car and the passion that some people have for these four-wheeled metal boxes is something that will remain hopefully remain in American society and society around the world.