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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 GPS systems). 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.