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Automotive Emission Systems Engineer Interview
Questions

30 Questions and Answers by
| Rachelle is a job search expert, career coach, and headhunter
who helps everyone from students to fortune executives find success in their career.

Question 1 of 30

Your customer has asked for a specific software change that you do not believe will solve the very real problem that they are experiencing. What do you do?

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Automotive Emission Systems Engineer Interview Questions

  1. 1.

    Your customer has asked for a specific software change that you do not believe will solve the very real problem that they are experiencing. What do you do?

      This question may be a bit harder for a recent college graduate to answer. You might think the best answer is to simply ask your boss what you should do. But that's the last step in the process. The first step in the process is to make sure that you can outline a realistic alternative to the customer's request. Your answer should lay out a strategy of evaluating the problem, analyzing why the customer's solution wouldn't work, detailing your own potential solution, and only then approaching your boss for guidance. Finally, acknowledge that the final decision is in the boss's hands unless he delegates it to you.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "Let's assume for the sake of this answer that the defect is not safety-related. I am mindful that customers often have ideas that are very logical from their point of view, but may not take all the complications of an engine management system into account. First, I would analyze the data that the customer provided with their complaint. If they did not provide any, I would ask for some. If I concluded that their solution would not address the root cause of the problem, I am guessing that an alternate possibility would suggest itself to me as I looked at the data. I would write up my suggested solution and distill the two solutions down to a brief description of the problem, the problems with the customer's solution, how my solution would mitigate the complaint, and then ask my manager what approach would best meet our commitment to this customer. Going the extra mile without charge might be a good long-term strategy. On the other hand, we might be further ahead quoting my alternative if we think they will listen. If the power relationship is such that 'customer says frog, we jump,' then maybe it is better to just implement the customer's solution. I'd want to at least note in the documentation that we did not have full confidence that their solution would work. I would make my recommendation, but the strategy that is selected is up to my boss. Having registered my objections, I would then do as my boss asked, no matter how dumb I thought it was."

  2. 2.

    Earlier, I asked you to describe how an oxygen sensor works. Your answer was not correct. How would you go about remedying this lack of knowledge?

      An interviewer could ask you how you react to criticism and listen to you try to impress him by going on and on about how well you respond to having your work challenged... or he might just interject a little friction into the interview and see for himself how you react. Do you fold even if you are correct? Do you simply resist? Do you think it through? There is almost nothing that good engineers get more of during their careers than criticism. It is the basis for disaster and error prevention as well as potential product enhancement. Of course, it is usually called 'constructive criticism' or a 'design review,' and in a good work environment it IS done in a positive manner and without blame. But it can still be challenging to be critiqued, even politely. Are you mature enough to handle it? You want your answer to acknowledge the possibility that you could be wrong while not ceding the field until you know more.

      With a question like this, you need more information to know whether you were actually wrong at all, whether you should diplomatically defend your answer and allow the interviewer to save face by saying that you think it was correct, but you will go back and take another look; or whether you really DID have a gap in your knowledge. In that case, you might thank the interviewer for correcting you and wryly point out that you still have a lot to learn about the subject.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "Could you say more? Specifically, which part did you think was wrong, and what would be a more correct way of putting it?"

  3. 3.

    Describe generally your understanding of the main components of a gasoline vehicle engine emissions control system.

      With a job interview, it always comes back to the same thing: prepare for the interview you have been granted. The interviewer has looked into your background enough to think that you are a potential candidate. Offer him/her the same respect by knowing something about the company, the products it offers, and the likely content of the job for which you are applying. The sample answer provided shows that the candidate has broad familiarity with automotive emissions control but doesn't know everything. This is a good enough starting point for a college graduate or a candidate with work experience in a quite different area of engineering.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "While I know that I am not aware of every possible component and strategy that makes up an emission control system in a gasoline engine, I know that generally, the four primary emissions control hardware components are the exhaust oxygen sensor, the catalytic converter, the charcoal canister and the engine control module (ECM). The ECM controls the air/fuel mixture to a desired value, usually right around the stoichiometric ratio for gasoline, based on feedback from the exhaust oxygen sensor. The catalytic converter actually does the bulk of the work in converting carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HCs) and various nitrogen oxides (NOx) into water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas. It does this by providing a large surface area for catalyzing these reactions using precious metals like platinum, palladium, and rhodium. The reason maintaining an air/fuel ratio near stoichiometry is so important is that CO and HCs require oxygen for their reactions, so their conversion is most efficient when there is more air than fuel, while NOx is converted better in a rich environment. The best mutual efficiency is near stoichiometry.

      To be completely transparent, I don't know that much about how a charcoal canister works. I know it is supposed to trap fuel vapor instead of letting it directly out into the atmosphere, but I am not completely aware of the details of what happens next. Obviously, the trapped gasoline vapor has to go somewhere, or it would eventually be released or cause the canister to blow up. So it must get routed to the engine at some point. After all, it's just gasoline, so why not? But I admit that I would have a lot to learn about the evaporative emissions system."

  4. 4.

    A customer is complaining about an engine stalling problem. Two engine management system solutions have been identified. One requires a change in your area of responsibility. The other would require a change in another subsystem. What should you do?

      Every overloaded engineer on planet Earth immediately says, in the privacy of his own thoughts, 'Make the other guy do it!' The reason they do not express this thought is because they know it's not the best way to arrive at a decision. There are many possible factors to consider. Surface the ones that seem objectively important to you.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "It seems like there are several things to consider. 1) Are the two solutions technically equivalent? 2) Does the customer have a preference between the two? 3) Is one solution significantly more difficult or time-consuming to implement? 4) Is it more feasible for one or the other of the two subsystem owners to accomplish the task quickly, based on their workload and priorities? From your brief scenario, we don't have the answer to any of those questions, but those are the things I would want to know before either volunteering to do it myself or trying to get the other guy to do it. Hopefully we could work it out between us, but in some situations, the right thing to do would be to lay the facts in front of both of our managers and let them make the call."

  5. 5.

    Can you describe for me what happens in a full cycle of a four-stroke internal combustion engine?

      Once you know that an interviewer might ask you to draw an octane molecule to test your technical mettle, you should realize that no reasonably relevant question is off limits, no matter how basic it might seem. And after all, is asking about the basics of how an engine works irrelevant to emissions control? Most certainly not. If you haven't already, go read about this. Then, remember: 'Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow.' Those are the parts of a four-stroke engine's cycle.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "In a four-stroke engine cycle, the crankshaft makes two revolutions for every complete combustion cycle. First is the intake stroke. The intake valves open and the piston moves down, creating a vacuum that draws the air and fuel mixture into the cylinder. There may be some overlap with the exhaust valves being open, but let's stick to the basics of your question. Next is the compression stroke. The intake valves close, and the piston moves up, compressing and heating the air/fuel mixture. Somewhere around top dead center of the piston's travel, the spark will occur. It might be a little bit before or a little bit after, depending on the operating conditions. The resulting 'explosion' in the cylinder will force the piston down, making the crankshaft rotate and producing useful power. Finally, on the exhaust stroke, the exhaust valves open, and the piston moves up, forcing the spent fuel and air out and down the tail pipe."

  6. 6.

    Are you able to travel when needed? As the job description says, up to ten percent of your time may involve travel, and it may be for several weeks at a time in remote areas. Would that work for you?

      No matter what job you are applying for, you should already have thought through whether you are willing or able to travel. Calibration engineers go on test trips which may last for a week or two at a time and are likely to be physically uncomfortable, since the objective is to test cars in garden spots like Death Valley in summer (heat) and Kapuskasing in winter (cold). If adventure appeals to you, you will really love this, but if not, answer with care. Another source of potential travel is the rare occasion when a critical software error is discovered after the release of a product. This can lead to squads of engineers sent to sites to re-flash hundreds or thousands of vehicles, under time stress. Of course, more mundane travel may also be called for in support of customers or joint projects where access to specific hardware is needed. Travel is not a major feature of the jobs of most automotive emissions system engineers, but the need does crop up from time to time.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "I'll have to admit that I am a bit of a homebody. I understand that travel can sometimes be required to do a job properly, and I am willing and able to travel when required. However, I would not be pushing for opportunities to travel just for the sake of doing it."

  7. 7.

    You speak English very well. I just hear a slight accent. Where are your parents from?

      This is not an acceptable interview question. It opens the interviewer to being accused of discrimination based on national origin. Most interviewers know this. Your task is to gracefully shift the terrain back to the only acceptable questions which are, 'Are you authorized to work lawfully in the USA?' or 'Will you need visa sponsorship to continue working in the USA?'

      Rachelle's Answer

      "Thank you for saying so. I have worked hard to make sure that my communication skills are good. You may be wondering if I am authorized to legally work in the US. I am, and I can provide proof of that, when needed."

  8. 8.

    I see from your resume that you were part of the on-board diagnostics team at XYZ Corporation. What method of diagnosing a stuck-closed charcoal canister did you provide to our mutual customer, ABC Corporation?

      The interviewer may be testing your integrity to find out whether, in your zeal to ingratiate yourself with him, you reveal confidential information from your previous position. The other possibility is that he is fishing for information. Can you blame a guy for trying? Yes, actually, you can. The problem for you is that you may not be able to establish the true motive for the question, no matter what the interviewer says. You might want to keep that in mind. One thing is for sure, you are not telling the interviewer what diagnostic method your previous company sold to ABC Corporation unless it is already published public knowledge. Being direct in your answer will show that you understand this as a question about your integrity, whereas deflecting or using plausible deniability ('well, I wasn't that close to the project') does not send a direct message to the interviewer.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "I would not be comfortable discussing the details of the work that we did with ABC Corporation. However, I'll be glad to outline the general principles involved in diagnosing a solenoid that is stuck closed. Would you like me to do that?"

  9. 9.

    What made you decide to leave ABC Corporation?

      In all probability, 'I hated my last job' is not the tack you are going to want to take here, even if it is true. Surely you can put some lipstick on that pig. It might be as simple as thinking through WHY you hated your last job. Just tell the interviewer what you want out of your next job, without speaking negatively about your last one. If you worked at your last job for less than three years, this explanation needs to be pretty convincing.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "I worked at ABC for five years. I learned a lot about the automotive industry, and I learned - I won't say I learned everything about my job function, but I learned enough to be highly proficient at it. I would like to take on a different challenge, and while I did ask the question, it didn't look like there were any opportunities to change job functions at ABC in the foreseeable future, so I decided to look elsewhere. Here I am. I want to work on more than just one component of an emissions system. I want to be a part of making the whole thing work. I want to broaden my base of knowledge. I find that challenging, and I think it makes me more valuable to the company I work for"

  10. 10.

    What part of your previous job did you like best?

      This question is an invitation to highlight what you love about engineering, whether or not your last job gave you enough opportunity to do that. If you really want the job you are interviewing for, you will tailor your answer to point out to the interviewer that what you like to do dovetails neatly with what the job on offer requires.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "I loved the sense of accomplishment I got when I tested a new component, figured out the best way to determine whether it was an improvement or not, evaluated the data that I took and could show clearly that it was a winner. That's a potential product. That's a win for the company. Obviously, the goal is that it should go that smoothly. But an equally exciting part of engineering, and really, the crucial part for making progress, is being able to solve problems. There's nothing to compare with the satisfaction of unravelling a mystery about why a component or a system didn't work the way it was supposed to and then fixing it. I guess you could say I didn't mind the hard and sometimes frustrating work to get to that feeling of victory."

  11. 11.

    Draw an octane molecule for me. Here’s pen and paper.

      Surprise! You've been asked a basic chemistry question. The question is simple. You probably learned the answer in high school, if not at college. But it might be such a surprise that you can't think of the answer for a moment. That's ok. Showing a calm and thoughtful approach to a question is appropriate and appreciated by an interviewer. Think, then write it out if you know it. If you don't, go look it up, since it is the major component in gasoline.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "It's been awhile since my last chemistry class. Let's see. I know that it has eight carbon atoms (from the prefix oct- in octane) and I know that every carbon atom has four bonding attachment points. From the '-ane' part of the name, I know that there are no double bonds. I also know that it is a hydrocarbon, so every atom in an octane molecule is either a carbon or a hydrogen atom. So I will draw a chain of 8 carbon atoms, each one with a single bond to the other. That leaves three bonds to fill on the two carbon atoms at the ends of the chain, and two open positions for each of the other carbons. So I will just fill in all the hydrogen atoms - 18 of them, and that's an octane molecule."

  12. 12.

    What do you need from your boss in a work setting, and what do you expect from your peers?

      As with many interview questions that examine personality characteristics, there is a range of answers that indicate that the interviewee is a normal, well-adjusted human being. Saying that you need nothing at all from your boss or peers and hope to see as little of them as possible; or that you really would like to talk to your boss every day, and that your peers should be available at all times for your questions - these two ends of the spectrum might raise a few eyebrows. Be honest, but be realistic about how company hierarchies need to function.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "I am pretty good at working independently. I am a self-starter, and I don't like being idle. So I don't need someone constantly looking over my shoulder to see if I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. I also wouldn't be super-happy to see the boss getting involved in every detail of my work. Of course, I am really talking about that stable point where I have learned what I need to know to make the kind of contributions that I believe I am capable of. At first, I realize that I will need instruction in the company's methods and products, how to best fit in to the culture. But once that phase is complete, I expect to work independently within the priorities I've been given. I'd like to have the boss check in with me from time to time to see if I need anything that I think can help me do my job better - training, for example. I expect to check in and have him either give me his current list of priorities for my work, or to sign off on the list I suggest. I expect him to give me feedback about how I am doing so that I can keep improving. Lastly, I expect my boss to give me opportunities to grow and advance, that he won't, for example, refuse to allow me to move to other opportunities in the company just because it is inconvenient for him to lose whatever expertise I have developed.

      From my peers, I know that I would initially need a lot of help ramping up to full competence in this job. I would want to feel that I could go to them with just about any question, whether it was technical or some other job-related piece of information, and know that it would be received with patience and respect. I would expect to do the same for newer employees once I had been around for a while. "

  13. 13.

    If you were interviewing someone for this job, what one question would you be sure to ask them?

      Your answer to this question tells the interviewer something about how you view the world. What is more important for judging a person's fitness for a job - his specific technical knowledge or his general behavior and personality? Either one is a possibility. You may view a complete command of job-related technical detail as most important. No one can say this is wrong, but then you have to be prepared to deal with a wide range of personalities, some quite difficult. If you choose behavior/personality as the best differentiator between potential success and failure in a job, then you may need to be prepared to deal with a wider range of technical capability or knowledge.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "I would want to know what the person loves most about being an engineer. For me, everything else flows from the answer to that question. A candidate can talk about their love of learning, their love of creating actual, physical objects, their love of being part of an effort to produce products that may improve the standard of living or protect the environment. If they show me authentic enthusiasm about their chosen profession, then I believe that they will have the energy and desire to learn everything else they need to know to be successful."

  14. 14.

    What experience do you have working with international suppliers?

      Whether or not the company you are applying to is, itself, a multinational corporation, it will certainly have customers and/or suppliers in international locations. This question gets at whether you have a realistic view of working with others in overseas locations, which may involve online phone calls and meetings at odd hours of the day, difficulties understanding a person who is struggling to express him/herself in a second language and cultural differences in how to express agreement or opposition to a proposal. If you do not have work experience yet, you can find another way to show you understand what it means to have a customer base, workforce or supply chain spread across the globe.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "Since I am applying for my first job out of college, I do not have any work-related experience with international suppliers. However, when I decided to become an engineer, I decided to also begin studying Chinese, because China is the world's largest market, as well as being a supplier of both labor and parts to companies around the world. I had already studied Spanish in high school, and I have maintained my proficiency in that language. In this day and age of high-speed internet, I would expect to have a number of means of communication with far-flung personnel, whether or not I was able to travel to their sites and meet them in person. Obviously, that's ideal. But between email, telephone connection and video conferences, there should be no reason not to be able to function almost as if you are in the same office. One thing I learned by studying other languages is that just because you can't spell an English word or use the wrong plural or verb tense doesn't mean you are dumb. Expressing yourself in a language that is not your own is hard work for most people. I know that you have to focus on the message that the other person is trying to convey, and I know that it helps to be clear, and to approach everyone with respect. That is how I would handle contacts with international suppliers if I were hired for this job."

  15. 15.

    It says here on your resume that you are familiar with Matlab. That is an important tool that we use in engine management systems work at ABC Corporation. In your view, what’s the best thing about Matlab?

      Everybody knows that the best thing about Matlab is the random answers you get when you type 'why' into the command space window. If the interviewer wanted a completely serious answer, they would have phrased the question differently. You would not be blamed for a completely serious answer, but given the phrasing, you are being invited to show that you really ARE familiar with Matlab - and that you have a sense of humor. A sense of humor is not a requirement for being a good engineer, but an interviewer is entitled to consider what kind of personality you bring to a group. When you've dispensed with the humor in the question, you can round out your answer with a more serious description of what you see as Matlab's good points.

      Rachelle's Answer

      "Anyone familiar with Matlab has probably typed 'why' into the command window at least once, after typing 'who' so many times, just out of idle curiosity. It might not be very productive to sit around the computer monitor with your friends laughing at the random answers Matlab generates to the question 'why,' but it's fun, harmless, and very true to what engineers think is funny. But more seriously, yes, I have done several school projects using Matlab and Simulink. It might not be my first choice for making a simple home budget spreadsheet, but for any technical task requiring repeatedly processing large amounts of data in flexible ways, for building simulations of control systems and even creating autocode from them, it's a good tool. I am open to learning any additional tools that ABC Corporation uses, but already knowing one such powerful tool is a good foundation, and it sounds like you are already using Mathworks products, so I could hit the ground running on that score."

  16. 16.

    Talk to me about EGR.

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  17. 17.

    Tell me about any experience you have with on-board diagnostics.

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  18. 18.

    Tell me what vehicle data acquisition methods you are familiar with.

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  19. 19.

    You are testing some new engine control software on a vehicle. You are ten miles from anywhere and the car quits running. Now what?

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  20. 20.

    When you have a choice between walking over to a colleague’s desk, phoning, emailing or instant messaging to communicate with them, which would you choose and why?

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  21. 21.

    What experience do you have writing requirements for hardware or software components? How do you approach it?

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  22. 22.

    Are you more interested in hands-on work like calibration and testing, or more software-related work such as creating controls algorithms and software?

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  23. 23.

    Tell me your understanding of how an oxygen sensor works and its function in an emissions control system.

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  24. 24.

    A friend of yours loves old cars and race cars. He tells you that he has read some articles that say that when you consider every part of the lifecycle of the electric vehicle, it worse than an internal combustion engine vehicle. What do you say to him?

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  25. 25.

    What would be some of the considerations an engineer would need to take into account in managing fuel and emissions control for CNG as a fuel instead of gasoline?

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  26. 26.

    I see here that you graduated 10 years ago with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, and that you have been employed at one company since then. What has been your approach to staying current on technical developments in your field?

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  27. 27.

    Describe what engine or vehicle calibration work you have done, and what you found to be the biggest challenges.

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  28. 28.

    Tell me about a time when you did a car or home repair. What was it, how did you proceed, and how did it turn out?

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  29. 29.

    Are you more interested in theoretical research or applied research?

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  30. 30.

    What formal problem-solving and process improvement methods do you use?

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