Computers in the auto repair industry have become as common as cellphones ringing during a movie. Laptops are a familiar sight at many tech stations now, and few cars are going in for repairs that don't have some computer-controlled functions.
Diagnostic tools and equipment are sometimes the only answer to the demands of highly-sophisticated vehicles, and the software behind this equipment is in a constant state of flux.
So many vehicle functions are now interconnected that only owning sockets, hammers and power tools isn't enough for current mechanics.
"We're seeing it every day where technicians are spending hours, sometimes days, on vehicles trying to diagnose or repair them with just normal equipment … a scan tool or scope … or whatever they have in the shop, only to find out that the only way to fix the vehicle is to actually update the calibration information with a computer," said Alan Brown, senior sales associate at Ease Diagnostics.
In fact, vehicle controllers are so interdependent on each other, it's now imperative for shops of all sizes to carry diagnostic equipment.
Reprogramming the fix
Scan tools, packed with options for enhanced coverage and wireless communication, continue to be a top-seller in the industry.
Close behind is the relatively new J2534 reprogramming and reflashing software.
"Basically J2534 is the new reprogramming standard," said Brown. "As long as you have hardware that complies with J2534 specifications, you can access calibration from the OEM that also meets these specifications, and everything works."
The ability to flash and reflash vehicle modules and update calibration information on an aftermarket level, means car owners no longer need to pay a visit to the dealership for this kind of repair. This reprogramming device "allows shop owners, technicians and repair facilities to be able to update vehicle control modules with the latest calibration information from the OEMs," Brown said.
"Maybe nothing's wrong with a car," said Brown. "It's just throwing a false diagnostic trouble code, and the only way to fix it is to reflash the internal computer in the car to tell it not to do it anymore.
"It's just another addition to your diagnostic arsenal to generate more revenue and business."
Jay Horak, principal engineer at AutoEnginuity, believes the real advantage to using computer-based solutions, like J2534 reprogramming, is that they allow end-users to unify what were once separate pieces of equipment into a single tool. And that's the point — allowing mechanics to do more with less.
"I think it's cheaper and better for people to bring together different technologies onto a single platform because it brings the cost down," said Horak. "The benefit of the PC solution is that you can bring in different vendors onto the same tool. So if you're not locked into a single vendor solution, or if somebody has a better idea — or even if it's a competing idea, they can commingle on the same piece of equipment and you don't have to re-buy the electrical overhead."
Another positive aspect of PC-based equipment is its ability to customize to a shop's specific needs.
"Because they're PC-based, they can basically be purchased how the end-user needs it," Brown said. "So if it's at a bare-bones level like the basic OBD-II tool package, we can provide them with that; if they're looking for OEM-specific info, to cover like engine, transmission, ABS, air bag and body, we can provide them with that. If they're looking for just one manufacturer in general, say they work at a GM dealership so the only vehicles they work on are GM, we can provide them with just a strict GM tool.
"Being PC-based, it gives you a little more leeway for how you can offer your packages."