Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Still Nothing To Beat The Human Brain!

The very definition of automotive diagnostic equipment (ADE) can be as elusive as faults on vehicles which it is designed to help detect and put right.

It could be a simple multi-meter or perhaps a full-blown oscilloscope? What about a battery tester, gas analyzer or smoke meter? Brake testers, chassis dynamometers and many various applications could all be defined under ADE.

For most automotive technicians, code readers and serial data tools are most commonly included within ADE, but one thing is for sure - none of the equipment can actually 'fix' vehicles. While some in-vehicle systems can cover up the symptoms of faults temporarily (limp-home), the human brain is still the best piece of kit available.

  • Legislation - emissions, safety etc.
  • Customer requirements - performance, economy, comfort, equipment usability, user-friendliness.
  • Vehicle manufacturers (VMs) need to sell 'better'/more cars than their competitors.
  • ADE manufacturers are in business to sell 'better'/more equipment than their competitors.
Most advances in vehicle technology seem to be accompanied by increasing numbers of ever more complicated electrical and electronic systems. Still, modern multiplexed/Can-Bus systems used by many VMs actually reduce the number of wires and connections where most faults originate. Once connected to the communications system within Can-Bus, it is possible to 'talk' to the vehicles' system, listening to its' switches and/or sensors and activating motors, lights etc.

This enables the technician to pin-point (no more guessing) what is working and what is not, and guiding him to the fault. Where ADE manufacturers has to invest more in is software and the information needed to communicate with the vehicle.


During the 1970s, Japanese VMs made a good job of taking existing European and American designed vehicles and improving on them both in quality and price. A similar thing is happening now with ADE and some of it is very good at the price. Taiwan manufactures some of the best ADE.

Meanwhile, VMs are using and moving further towards 'on-line' diagnosis, featuring more software to link the vehicle to the manufacturer. This means that VMs can diagnose faults using symptom-based information from hundreds of thousands of similar vehicles, update the vehicles' ECMs to solve software issues and issue bulletins for common faults.


So, the 64 million dollar question is this: Will VMs allow some form of access to these systems by independent workshop operators?

Vehicle sensors and actuators are now becoming cleverer at diagnosing themselves, further narrowing down the cause of faults and making conventional diagnosis less necessary. Diagnostic programs can be built into the vehicle itself (some cars and trucks manufacturers are already doing this), making code readers etc, almost unnecessary, except for roadworthiness and enforcement purposes.

But most important of all, the best bit of 'equipment' in the workshop is still the technician. So, along with keeping abreast of ADE development, the need for regular personnel training should be recognised.

It is also worth bearing in mind that it doesn't matter what it does, or in what complicated system it operates, a piece of wire is a piece of wire, and still nothing to beat the human brain, come rain or shine!

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