Scanning for Errors

The industrial revolution glutted tailpipes and smokestacks in the name of progress, and it wasn't until 1971, with the federal Clean Air Act, that the automotive industry was harnessed with a regulatory standard which asked for air-friendly accountability. Legislation for emissions standards has since become as thick as the layer of smog over LA, and it's still here, in all its tangled history, winking slyly as a Check Engine light every time we start our vehicles.

The EPA spearheaded this campaign for regulation and explains the continuous adjustments. According to their website,, on-board diagnostic (OBD) systems were implemented as a response to the inherent environmental flaws in motor vehicles: "Despite numerous improvements in automotive technology, motor vehicles continue to be a major source of air pollution, accounting for approximately 77 percent of CO2 and 45 percent of ozone-causing nitrogen oxide (NOX) in our nation's air."

OBD was set up to curtail this pollution problem. Its essential purpose is to act as a monitoring system which has the capability of measuring tailpipe emissions and alerting the driver of any malfunction of the emission-control system. The current standard, OBD-II, is the second tier, but not the last. Any car manufactured after MY 1995 was required to be equipped with OBD-II, which monitors a wide range of emission controls and lights the 'check engine' light if a problem is detected.

Leave it to the effusive power of technology to not let it stop with only emissions. Not surprisingly, OBD has since begun to blanket almost everything that can be monitored or managed within an automobile.


John Frala, associate professor of alternative transport technologies at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, California, has been deeply embedded in the technology for over thirty years, starting when GM outfitted its '74 Chevrolet Vega with the first semblance of an on-board diagnostic system. He has seen diagnostic systems grow from exclusively emission-related to what we have today in OBD-II, and he anticipates further technological advancements: "the new standard will be faster, with more data, so you can really pick the finites like low tires, temperatures… (It will be) even more precise with the goal of ultimate efficiency," Frala says.

OBD-II reduced the automotive choices to two protocols: J1850 and ISO-9141-2, which still created a bevy of avenues in which the data could be processed, inspected and maintained. Frala, who also does dealer training for American Honda, explains the link between today's standards and those of the near future: "OBD-II standards are now being expanded to a new communication protocol combining J1939 and ISO 9141-B speeds to what many have dubbed the 'OBD-III' operating system."

At the center of this OBD-III system is the Controlled Area Network (CAN), which has been mandated by the EPA to be in all cars manufactured in 2008 and after. This new system addresses some of the inadequacies of OBD-II in the sense that it is an interoperable computer system that can manage a number of different elements under one protocol. The CAN system has practical benefits in terms of economizing fleet time and cost, especially for things like efficiency and routing in public transportation.

"Now the automotive CAN network is being used in transit bus operations for features like GPS tracking to identify where a bus is and how long it will take to pick up the fare-paying customer. As the bus is operating, they can update information related to engine and transmission operation through the GPS transponder without removing the bus from service," Frala says.


While the technology itself must be broadly implemented, industry suppliers have responded with widely varying products which accomplish the goals set out by the EPA in myriad ways. B&B Electronics is one of many of the companies flooding the market with a diagnostic scan tool. B&B's director of business development, Matt Williams, sees their particular product, Auto Tap, as the best balance between the most important elements behind OBD-II utility: "functionality vs. cost."

According to their product website,, B&B feels they are addressing something that is a problem of high cost and complicated technology in the diagnostic tools market: "Because of their investment in the equipment required, most repair shops charge a fee, sometimes substantial, to attach the scanning equipment and diagnose problems using the OBD-II system signals. Home mechanics and small shop technicians have been restricted from working with these signals by cost and technical complexity of the equipment. With the introduction of more economical and user-friendly scanning devices, it is now practical for almost anyone to access OBD-II signals and use them for their own testing and repairs."

According to Williams, fleets adopting this new technology found "hundreds of real-time parameters flooding OBD-II, but after five, six, or seven, they went 90 percent down the value curve." Williams suggested that offering all of these parameters, most of which B&B saw as only marginally useful, "cascades down into the overall cost. We took a few key parameters" the aim of which was for "an elegant, simplified product that hits those parameters. The concept was simply to drive down cost without giving up the bulk of the value proposition."

Snap-on Diagnostics has its own, highly comprehensive scan tool, MODIS. Gerry Beronja, director of global marketing for Snap-On highlights the benefits beyond simply emission controls: "MODIS provides a breadth and depth of vehicle communication coverage—codes, data, and tests—for the majority of passenger vehicles and light trucks on the road today.

Snap-on 'Troubleshooter and Component Tests' software contains over nine million tests and tips that integrate scan tool, lab scope and digital multi-meter capabilities." Beronja goes on to describe Snap-on's commitment to both training, which he sees as "a huge concern," and future diagnostic technologies.


So the beneficiaries include the environment, and the aftermarket distributor. Is there a loser in this game? Arguably, it's the fleet managers and technicians, and for several reasons.

Greg Gilseth, fleet maintenance manager for Hennepin County Public Works in Minnesota, explains why: "I guess even though the EPA is trying to unify all the systems, each manufacturer still has their own individual characteristics as to how they try to accomplish certain things as far as emissions, driveability; those types of things. That's one of the things we struggle with, is having to purchase multiple scan testers so we can test all the different makes and models of vehicles that we have. It is very costly."

Cost is not the only hurdle for fleets dealing with this new and evolving technology. "Another problem would be training for my mechanics," Gilseth says. "It's hard for my guys to be experts all the time in every type of system. (They're) learning something new virtually every year, just like a factory or dealer would have with their mechanics, but, like I said, I'm kind of at a loss as far as receiving the training and also—quite specifically—the materials, or access that I would need to be able to diagnose these vehicles. So it's a struggle at times."

For a large fleet like Gilseth's, the hope is that this technology will eventually show its clear benefits. "It may be more complex as far as the way it operates, but as far as diagnosis and repair, the potential is that it could make it easier," he says. "Until the bugs are worked out, there may be some struggle for a short time. There will probably be some learning and adapting for all of us, but chances are it'll be for the best in the long run. If all the advances make it easier to diagnose and repair, that equals less down time for my vehicles. My desire would be to have a scan tool that's easily adaptable to all makes and models. That would be a huge help for us."

Rio Hondo's Frala sees the future of the technology, in its advancement into OBD-III, as addressing those concerns exactly: "From what I'm seeing, and from the guys I've talked to at American Honda, it's all going PC-based, and it's wireless, so you can plug in the node in the car and walk around with your laptop and read all the scanner stuff. It will be a huge benefit; I just bought six computers from Dell and I paid $1,200 a piece, top-of-the-line, so my students have six brand-new computers instead of six different scan tools. Then you can go from car to car without having to be required to switch tools. Now the tech can learn one system. With OBD-I they had three protocols, with OBD-II they went to two protocols. OBD-III will be a universal protocol."

As for now, companies like B&B offer an optional upgrade to a diagnostic system which hosts parameters for Ford, GM and Chrysler all on one tool.


Several companies have found ways of implementing the OBD-II standards into their products, while still surging forward into broader, OBD-III specific goals.

At GM, the EPA mandate fits well into the folds of its OnStar system, a catch-all device that encompasses not only emissions, but also predictive maintenance, routing and safety. OnStar is one of many systems that takes OBD and streamlines into a more advanced category, telematics. This system, like several others on the market, is 2008-ready. Fritz Beiermeister, OnStar director of business sales and marketing for GM, explains the way this new system can, in some ways, trump traditional OBD.

"The basic business of OnStar is telematics. We use a combination of on-board vehicle electronics, cellular technology and GPS (global positioning systems) technology to create and deliver services," he says. These services include safety measures such as emergency responses to airbag deployment, or time-saving features. "We do door unlocks. We unlocked, in a fleet environment, one in eight vehicles in a year's time. In a fleet world, where you've got people out doing high skill jobs and they lock their keys, along with other equipment, in a vehicle… we can unlock the doors and get them right back on the road. We can put a value on just getting doors unlocked in the $150-200 range, so it's real money."

The biggest difference between the current OBD-II standard and telematics lies in telematics' up-to-the-minute capabilities.

Instead of waiting for the problem to occur, returning to a service station and having the vehicle scanned, the electronic system is constantly reading the internal information. This comes down to concerns as big as your engine, or as small as low tire pressure or when best to change your oil. The plans for OBD-III look to include this type of telematic monitoring, in order to minimize the gaps between problem, diagnosis and repair.

In some minds, reducing that gap also means reducing an element of driver privacy that comes with the constant monitoring. Beiermeister doesn't see that as a problem: "OnStar does not monitor vehicle location; we put a really high premium on personal privacy."


Ontario, Canada's Netistix has taken a particularly unique approach to what their VP of marketing, John Woronczuk, sees as "a very burgeoning, high-growth marketplace."

Netistix's "Fleet Pulse" combines three modules of information in their system, which they loosely categorize as base logistics, fuel & safety, and diagnostics. The diagnostic pool of data is what you would traditionally see from an OBD-II system. According to Woronczuk, "we collect all the diagnostic trouble-codes that the engine's control units are generating that first (caused) that service engine lamp to turn on on the dashboard. We are also giving pending diagnostic trouble codes, which are codes the engine's ECUs generate, but have not reached the severity to turn on the service engine lamp. It's a pre-warning system."

Woronczuk goes on to describe the benefits of the Netistix system which allows for the convenience of wireless access: "Fleet Pulse is a web-hosted solution. What that means is that the access point or the wireless devices are at the fleet yard, accepting the information from the vehicle, sending it out over the internet and allowing anyone with a web browser to log on to the web application and run reports and look at the health of the vehicles and how the vehicles have been driven."


Another potential benefit of OBD-III-ready equipment is in allowing fleet managers to accurately monitor their fuel use and idling time. EJ Ward, a company which began in fuel systems and has integrated the EPA standards in its evolution, offers a product, the CANceiver, which ties together the two priorities through a web-based application.

According to EJ Ward's vice president of marketing, John Featherston, the system is multi-faceted. "We're getting information on how much fuel is used in the vehicle, so it's a fuel system. To get fuel, all you do is stick the nozzle into the gas tank, and it communicates back to the vehicle control terminal and says this is a valid vehicle, and also downloads pertinent information."

The data includes things like odometer readings, total stop and idle time, engine oil levels and maximum speed of the vehicle between fueling. "This is more than the EPA thing. You need depth of information and, while a mechanic can use a scan tool and download this information, we're getting it with every fueling transaction."

Hopefully by the time 2008 and OBD-III roll around, the benefits for technicians will outweigh the hassles of what has been a costly and complicated series of compliances. But with technology driving the industry, techs should look forward to a promising year of advancements.

The New 'A' Student: Vehicle Intelligence Raises the Bar in Fleet Services

Fleet Safety& Safety Fleets

With the advent of the first OBD protocols, the realistic benefits for the consumer were hazy. The automobile industry can be rife with these types of cost-heavy initiatives where the results are often abstract and inconceivable—environmentally, it is difficult to gauge how much worse off we would have been without the emissions standards. But as the dog-eared EPA initiatives get incrementally better, they also begin to regress into only a tiny actor in the bigger show of overall vehicle intelligence.

OBD-II has created a venue for operators to have greater access to the internal information of their vehicles. Regulatory standards meant lots of competitors, and in an effort to out-pace each other, this technology flourished into more and more vehicle monitoring capabilities. Vehicle intelligence sounds good, and while it brings to mind talking cars, the real capabilities of today make Kit from Nightrider look as dated and weathered as David Hasslehoff.

  One of the arenas in which this vehicle intelligence is best utilized is in emergency services. John Woronczuk, VP of marketing for Netistix, discusses what they see as one of the most important new networks:

"One of the marketplaces we are going after are these municipal wireless (wi-fi) deployments, where a city has decided to put in, starting with the downtown core, a bunch of wi-fi access points to help improve emergency services."

Municipal Wireless Communities

Netistix is involved in one of the newest and most comprehensive networks harnessing vehicle intelligence, or, more specifically, "telematics," which is the progression from OBD-II to a more up-to-the-minute vehicle monitoring system. Municipal wireless communities boast wi-fi capabilities that optimize not only the access to vehicle information, but also the cost of keeping fleet vehicles communicating.

"Typically, the purchase, maintenance and management of fleets represents a significant expense to the city. Often these costs are thought to be unmanageable, particularly in light of rising fuel costs. But this is no longer the case, and wireless networks are playing a critical role in changing how fleet operators view the management of their fleets," Woronczuk says.

"For the last ten or twenty years, that has typically been either a satellite wireless link, or a cellular wireless link and we've decided not to use any of those and to use something that's a non fee-based wireless interface, and that's this wi-fi… so you pay a one-time charge to put in the wireless access point, and from that point on, you don't pay any monthly fees for the wireless interface so that's a big differentiator between traditional telematics and what we do."

Netistix sees the integral component of their system in the cost-saving fleets can see from switching to wireless access. Instead of paying for each minute of data transfer like you would using cellular technology, the rate is flat and data can be transmitted at various times throughout the workday with no cost penalty for connection or time limits. So instead of outsourcing to an information management service, or sticking with the manual method of data and usage tracking after-the-fact, fleets can now manage their own data through wireless networks that can feed back information to their fleet yard while the vehicle is operating. Various hubs are set up throughout the community and as the vehicle picks up the wireless signal, data is processed and sent, without any effort by the driver.

Under the Hood

"One of the big things that we claim in our solution is that we can very accurately calculate the amount of fuel being consumed by the vehicle, using the information from the OBD-II port. And this is something that many people just derive from billing records or fuel purchase records and say 'I've bought so many liters or gallons of fuel over the last month or year…' but we can actually tell you how many liters or gallons of fuel you have actually burned in that vehicle, per day, per month, per year," Wonronczuk says.

"Sometimes it's very interesting for a fleet manager or a service manager to take a look at the difference between those two figures. And what the difference leads to is that sometimes an organization may have fuel theft going on, or fuel slippage where people are filling up cans or other vehicles on the same fuel card, for example, where it's not being put into the actual fleet vehicle itself."

Taking on Telematics

For city fleets—safety fleets especially—this technological capability can yield critical results, like keeping ambulances and police cars running at their optimal effectiveness. What serves as a cost and convenience incentive for the fleet operators themselves will also allow the general public to benefit from more reliable emergency services. According to Woronczuk, this is the most comprehensive possible system:

"Security and safety are key for telematics, and can tell you where the vehicle is at this very moment in time in case it got stolen, or broken down on the side of the road. That was the real origins of telematics. But to understand what is really going on under the hood from a maintenance and diagnostic perspective really wasn't ever included in that, and we've introduced that into the field of telematics."