Reflashing: The aftermarket’s next big challenge

If keeping up with the changing capabilities of aftermarket tools wasn’t demanding enough nowadays, another class of tools – powertrain control module (PCM) reprogrammers – are emerging as yet another area that will separate the leaders from the pack.

Service procedures for many cars nowadays require updating the PCM. In some cases, a “reflash” alone will correct a car’s problem.

When a customer recently brought a stalling 2003 PT Cruiser to Buddy’s Automotive in Independence, MO, the car’s computer was shutting down, causing the vehicle to stall and preventing the PCM from communicating with modules. After replacing the PCM with a used unit, the techs hooked the Drew Technologies’ J2534 pass-through device to the PCM. A J2534 pass-through device acts as a gateway between a vehicle’s onboard computer and a PC or laptop.Jeff Bly, the shop’s master tech, was then able to reprogram the PCM in 25 minutes. Once the PCM was reprogrammed, the car’s fuel injection worked fine.

Without the J2534 device, the shop would have needed an OE factory scan tool, a hefty investment.

“J2534 is a game changer to equalize what a shop can do to compete with the dealers,” Bly said. But getting into reprograming is not for the inexperienced. Bly noted that shops need a thorough understanding of what they are doing when reprogramming a PCM. They also need a dedicated reflashing laptop, a constant power source, an OE-compatible operating system and a reliable Internet connection. He emphasized that techs need to be well prepared before they perform a reflash since most reflashes cannot be reversed.

At present, most aftermarket shops are content to send reprogramming work to OE dealers. But this is changing. Forward-thinking shop owners are realizing they need to be able to reprogram vehicles if they want to win their fair share of an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Being able to reflash saves a shop the time and expense of sending a vehicle to an OE dealer. Not to mention the boost it gives the shop’s reputation.

In the near term, J2534 proficiency allows an aftermarket shop to win reprogramming work from other shops since most shops can’t do it.

It’s a safe bet that this window of opportunity will last for several more years at least. No one knows for sure how long it will be before most aftermarket shops can successfully respond when a technical service bulletin calls for a reflash.

J2534 tools will become more versatile as carmakers continue to support aftermarket reprogramming. Aftermarket shops, meanwhile, must get up to speed on what OEs require from them to reflash vehicles and what aftermarket tools will allow them to provide this service.