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America’s Automotive IQ: Analyzing Automotive Knowledge in the U.S.

america's automotive iq, analyzing automotive knowledge in the u.s.

Let’s see if you can answer this question without Google: How do you jumpstart a car?

While we live in a world where information and instruction are just a few taps or voice commands away, there’s something to be said about knowing the inner workings of our automobiles. Unfortunately, though, our mechanical troubleshooting skills don’t seem to be improving.

Auto dealers and repair shops looking to recruit qualified employees are facing a shortage of skilled car mechanics, and there have been several stories of schools placing auto shop classes into the scrap heap.

Interested to see how car-competent America truly is, we surveyed more than 2,000 people on their automotive IQ. How confident are they when it comes to changing a tire? And do they even know how to check the oil? Should we look to older generations when it comes to knowing the difference between an AC compressor and alternator? To see what we found, drive on through.

Our Automotive Report Card

america's automotive intellect, percentage of car-related questions answered correctly by region

Not only did we ask individuals to rate their personal knowledge and comfort surrounding a variety of different repairs in our survey, but we also used a quiz to gain a general understanding of America’s current car competence. Did they know what a transmission actually does? Can they identify a part with just a photo? What do they do when water gets in their gas tank? These are just a few examples of the questions we asked.

Only two regions ended up with a score above 80 percent. Respondents from East South Central – Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee – earned the highest marks with their car knowledge. The recorded average scores from these states were just shy of 83 percent. Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas (also known as West South Central) used their grease monkey skills to score a close second with an equally impressive 80 percent.

Coming in last were those respondents from the Middle Atlantic region – New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania – who answered barely over 75 percent correctly. This becomes even scarier when you consider that, out of the 50 states, each one of these appears in the top 10 when looking at the number of cars in each state.

New York ranks fourth overall in terms of automobiles on the road, behind only California, Texas and Florida. Before you blame it all on taxi cabs, realize there’s around 13,400 in New York City. With more than 5 million cars cruising through the Empire State, perhaps it’s past high time to help educate their citizens on automotive care and concern.

Listen to Your Elders

auto aptitude, percentage of car-related questions answered correctly, by age and gender

While hopping online to find a “how to change my oil” video that might make sense, maybe a parent or grandparent should be your first resource instead. Male baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, scored the highest in our assessment of auto know-how at just more than 91 percent. They displayed the ability to discern between a spark plug and an alternator without much issue.

Our youngest millennials, however, showed this is one area they might not be as comfortable as they would have you think. Scoring almost 20 percentage points lower than male baby boomers, young millennial men concede this point to those growing up around the original Mini Cooper, Ford Mustang and Porsche 911. With the advent of digital ride-booking services, such as Lyft or Uber, it puts our youngest millennials in a position where even owning a car seems unnecessary. If you’re never playing the part of a driver, would you even think about starting to learn how a car works or the steps to repair it?

Fake It Till You Make It

america's car car confidence, which regions are most confident about performing car-related tasks and repairs

Confidence, when not equipped with knowledge, comes off as foolish rather than informed. This happened in New England, where respondents self-assessed with the highest level of car confidence among those surveyed, but actually ranked fourth across all regions in our test. West North Central aligned their confidence closer to their actual results; they said they were the least confident and scored the second lowest average across all the regions.

We asked the participants just how uncomfortable or comfortable they were with a smattering of different tasks often associated with operating a car. This ran the gamut from parallel parking to driving a vehicle with manual transmission. Perhaps this is even more difficult for millennials – lessons such as these would be taught in a driver’s education class, but those are becoming harder to find in schools.

For example, in just one decade, California’s Orange County Public Schools went from offering the course in 33 schools to six, supporting almost 2,000 students in 1998 to 162 in 2012.

Tired of Oil Changes

america's car confidence: a total wreck, how confident are you to change a tire? how confident are you to change the oil

Digging deeper into the confidence on specific tasks, we found not all automotive chores are created equal. More than 40 percent of those surveyed indicated they were completely confident in their ability to replace a flat tire. When combined with those who were somewhat confident, this represented nearly 60 percent of participants. With just more than 20 percent who noted they were clueless on the steps, it’s possible a few people on your epic road trip know how to change that flat you’ll pick up in the middle of nowhere. (Let’s just hope the spare tire is in great shape!)

Almost 60 percent acknowledged they were clueless or not very confident when it comes to an oil change. Given that extensive operation of a car without an oil change can result in engine deposits with terribly high levels of iron, aluminum and chromium, whether they learn to replace it themselves or not isn’t the real issue. Just getting the oil changed, and often, seems more important.

Stick It to ’Em

wet behind the wheels, when it comes to these basic car-related tasks, millennials have a lot to learn from older generations

Even though there are large numbers of cars for sale that still operate with a manual transmission, only 10 percent of vehicles manufactured in the United States during 2014 were equipped with a manual. Given the dwindling number of cars currently being built with anything other than an automatic transmission, is it any surprise that almost 50 percent of younger millennials and almost 40 percent of older millennials are clueless with a clutch?

This isn’t the only auto scenario they’re ill-equipped for. They’re also going to struggle with handling an overheated car. Adding water to the radiator is a delicate task – you don’t want to end up with burns in the process. A third of young millennials would be asking for help in this situation. Baby boomers were extremely confident with more than 60 percent saying they could handle this task.

Name That Part

can you name this car car part? percentage of respondents who correctly guessed the answer

Yes, you know where the lever is to open your hood. But if you opened it, would you actually know what you’re looking at. What’s under each part’s guard? When seeing if those surveyed could just do that, we showed them photos of an AC compressor, alternator, drive shaft and rotor and asked them to label that part. Close to 75 percent correctly identified the alternator, and more than 50 percent properly pointed out the drive shaft and the rotor. Where they struggled was making out the AC compressor. It definitely isn’t the coolest of answers to miss.

Treading Lightly With Tech

too old for tech, car technology tends to trouble older generations

When you’re buying a new car, bells and whistles can make the difference between feeling good and great about your purchase. However, almost half of those tech features the dealership sold you on may go unused within the first 90 days. Maybe it included the nearly 20 percent of baby boomers who have no confidence when it comes to connecting their phone to the car’s speakers, either with Bluetooth or an auxiliary cable.

They’re also the group who claimed the most concern about being able to use the navigation system. In stark contrast to baby boomers, 85 percent of millennials indicated they were completely confident when it came to using their GPS system.  Here’s a great chance for those young and older millennials to trade some favors – providing technical support in exchange for guidance on telling them how to jumpstart a car in a moment of need.

Who Are You Gonna Call?

roadside assistance, who would you call first if your car broke down and you were stranded by the side of the road?

More than 36 percent of those surveyed indicated the first call they’d make when they’re stranded with their car is to roadside assistance. AAA arms more than  56 million members with roadside assistance solutions. Aided with additional protection from their car manufacturers (in fact, nearly every major car company offers some type of plan to new car buyers), it makes sense that this would be the first call.

For a different take on who to call first, younger millennials overwhelming preferred to make mom or dad the first choice; almost 45 percent thought their parents would be the best option when they’re experiencing a car crisis. And if you’re a Gen Xer, you’re most likely to call your significant other, or AAA.

Future of Our Auto Identity

Now, we have a much better understanding of what Americans do or don’t know about operating and caring for their motor vehicle. When it comes to knowing how to identify car parts or operate a stick shift, we’ve seen that there’s more than a fair amount of information for younger millennials, men and women, to absorb.

Their first call (or perhaps a text message) when smoke starts pouring out of their engine most likely goes to their parents. If that parent happens to be a male baby boomer these kids are in luck – they performed the best in our technical assessment. While every car needs routine maintenance, you should also ensure you’ve locked in the best deal for car insurance. provides a comprehensive overview of the best auto insurance deals available for you.


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You can use all the images above freely, but don’t drive away without linking back to this study. Give credit where credit is due.