Mechanic Connection: Keeping Up with Technology
The common view that the modern technician keeps up with automotive technology by attending the latest training classes and absorbing through rote memorization its latest intricacies is far from the truth. In the real world, the only available instructor is usually the technician himself. As such, learning about complex electronic operating systems is a daily, on-going process.
The Information Curve Ball
For today’s ASE CertifiedTechnician, keeping up with information technology is like living in a world where the normal rules of life are changed to suit the moment. Ten years ago, for example, a technician was taught that observing oxygen sensor waveforms on a lab scope would provide the information needed to detect fuel control and ignition failure problems.
That rule suddenly turned into an information “curve ball” when the Onboard Diagnostics II (OBDII) engine management systems came into being in 1996. All of the previous methods of oxygen sensor analysis were replaced by a mathematical model in the Powertrain Control Module (PCM)’s electronic operating strategy. Overnight, scan tools became a necessity for analyzing oxygen sensors. Again, the technician experienced a “curve ball” because the PCM became the final authority on oxygen sensor analysis.
However, technicians are discovering that a flaw in the PCM’s math program can cause a false oxygen sensor trouble code. For me, this new learning curve took place recently when a 2000 Subaru 2.5-liter engine returned to my shop one year after replacing the air/fuel sensor with the same trouble code as before. The only way I could find a rationale for the trouble code was to contact my technical hotline and speak with an experienced Subaru technician who confirmed that this failure was indeed a programming issue. In one stroke, many years of learning had just been rendered obsolete by a mathematical mistake in the auto manufacturer’s engineering department!
Printed word is an important part of keeping veteran techs up to date, and training new techs in the basics of auto repair. An auto mechanics program contains more than 1,000 clock hours of classroom instruction and requires thousands of pages of reading just to learn the basics of auto repair. Once at the journeyman level, the new technician will usually become an ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician with the advanced engine performance certification in engine management electronics. From this point on, the technician will attend advanced-level classes taught by recognized industry experts. He will also begin to network with other advanced-level technicians through Internet groups like the International Automotive Technician’s Network (iATN). In addition, he may subscribe to various technical hot lines and expert-level Web sites, which serve as de facto training sessions that are available when the technician encounters an unfamiliar operating system.
The Modern Technician
I recently had a 2004 Dodge Dakota equipped with a 3.7-liter engine come into my shop with the “Check Engine” light on, but with no noticeable driveability complaints. Using my scan tool, I retrieved a P0116 diagnostic trouble code, which indicates an “engine coolant temperature circuit or rationality problem.” Going back to basic operating strategy, the PCM is looking for a specific temperature rise in coolant temperature during a specific length of time. Several diagnostic possibilities existed, including a bad thermostat, coolant temperature sensor, faulty wiring or PCM.
As with any diagnostic trouble code, the proper procedure is to avoid re-inventing the diagnostic wheel by researching technical service bulletins that pertain to a driveability trouble code. By researching the TSBs on this vehicle, I found that the P0116 DTC was, in all likelihood, a false trouble code that might be better addressed through reprogramming the PCM rather than replacing hard parts.
Futuristic Auto Repair Technologies
The days of traditional car repair aren’t totally behind us quite yet, but they’re on their way. And while there might always be a place for a small, old-school mechanic’s shop to work on older cars, it’s unlikely that service stations and low-volume car dealerships can keep up. Automotive repair is getting a bit less greasy and a bit more geeky, as tablet computers become the most valuable tools on a technician’s workbench. Techniques might be getting more advanced, but it’s absolutely necessary to keep up with the way cars are designed and built. New technology might make diagnosis and repair faster; however, that doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily be any cheaper for consumers. Repair shops have to invest a lot of money to stay certified (and therefore competitive) and those costs have to get passed along somehow — but what does all this mean for the average car owner? Let’s take a look at some up-and-coming car repair tools and techniques.
New Auto Body Techniques
New technology, particularly the way cars’ construction is evolving, means that auto repair shops need to update their techniques and equipment. A specific area of concern is the increased use of aluminum in car design. Aluminum body panels were once a privilege reserved mainly for high-end performance cars; but that’s expected to change, and more manufacturers, such as Ford, are rumored to be designing all-new aluminum-bodied vehicles. That’s mostly because the material is lightweight and strong, which helps cars meet federal fuel economy and safety regulations. But experienced technicians are accustomed to working on steel cars, and aluminum requires a totally new strategy. Banged-up aluminum body panels usually can’t be reshaped like their steel counterparts can; the panel typically needs to be replaced, which requires aluminum-specific riveting tools and welding equipment. These changes might increase the cost of auto body repair, but there are some upsides. As cars get stronger and smarter, experts expect that they’ll last longer, too. Also, new safety technology, like backup cameras and collision warning systems, means that crashes should become less frequent and less serious.
Wireless Data Transmission
As cars become rolling WiFi hotspots, manufacturers have found some practical ways to use this technology. Wireless software updates correct running problems, improve fuel mileage and address other performance or safety issues. Sometimes, dealerships update software during regular vehicle service. In more important situations, such as an early 2014 problem with the anti-lock brakes in a couple million Toyotas, a recall ensures updates are completed in a timely manner. Tesla Motors made waves with its Model S electric car, which can be updated wirelessly from home, similar to a smartphone or a computer, and so far, it seems to be working pretty well. Of course, Tesla is also known for bucking the traditional dealership model, so the company doesn’t need to worry about angry dealer franchisees — if cars don’t need to come in for recalls, there’s less opportunity to upsell and get revenue, some dealers say. Security is also a concern, because anything that’s wireless has the potential to be hacked or tampered with. It’s no secret that the big, mainstream automakers aren’t willing to take as many risks as Tesla, but if the wireless data transmission strategy proves to be reliable, it may soon become a lot more common.
New cars feature complicated and sometimes dangerous (to service technicians) electronic or hybrid drivetrains, increasingly detailed computerized components, upgraded safety systems to meet new federal regulations, and a labyrinth of sensors everywhere that control practically everything. These expensive components are already changing how cars are repaired. But even more changes are on the horizon. Soon, augmented reality might mean that auto technicians might sport Google Glass headsets that feed visual information about the car to a computer that guides the mechanic through the process, and an app program that can help the technician visualize areas that are out of view or out of reach. Volkswagen was among the first manufacturers to float the idea of such technology, and introduced an interface called MARTA for the upcoming VW XL1, which features an intricate diesel-hybrid drivetrain. MARTA (Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistance) can save technicians valuable time learning the ins and outs of an unusual vehicle, and, Volkswagen hopes, may even improve safety on the job. Researchers say that someday, augmented reality apps might be written for consumers to use for repairs on-the-go, paired with smartphone cameras. Future versions of augmented reality technology might even replace the traditional paper owner’s manual booklet.
True, 3-D printing already exists, but a lot of its potential is still untapped. In short, 3-D printing uses computers and other computerized components to recreate an existing object, or create an all-new custom object of the user’s design. This could be especially useful to repair older cars with hard-to-find or nonexistent parts supply — just take out the thing that broke, scan it and spit out a new one. Though classic car enthusiast Jay Leno talked about using such techniques back in 2009, it’s still out of reach for most people. Most high-quality 3-D systems are still very expensive, large and tricky to use. In other words, industrial-strength 3-D printing has come a long way, with car manufacturers using the technology to create prototype parts, and insurance companies considering ways to recreate entire classic cars; however, average consumers and hobbyists still have a while to wait until reliable systems are affordable, and affordable systems are reliable. Making toys and trinkets with an at-home 3-D printer is one thing, but the stakes are a bit higher if you’re printing a set of brake calipers.