Are you prepared to program?

To keep current with manufacturer software subscriptions and updates, begin by ensuring your intel and hardware are up to the task.

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When it comes to programming, coding, and reflashing, there’s a bit more to it than just having access to the manufacturer’s information; your equipment has to be able to process the information provided. I’m referring to your PC, your laptop, your smartphone, or, for that matter, your scan tool. Are they up-to-date and able to handle the next job that comes in the door? The last thing you want is to find out your software or hardware isn’t up to the challenge when you need it the most.

Anomalies in the shop

Several years ago, a 2003 Hummer came into my shop with a battery drain issue. The drain was found to be in the instrument cluster. Usually I would either do an in-house repair or have the cluster sent out, but this one was a bit too far gone. The lens was cracked and the faded fuel gauge looked like it had seen better days, so a new replacement cluster was in order.

In those days, when I ordered a replacement cluster, I could rattle off the VIN and mileage for the parts person at the dealership and they would have them downloaded onto the cluster. Once in a while I might have to do the old “10-minute security relearn procedure,” but for the most part, all GM cluster installations were basically the same. A few days later the cluster showed up, and low and behold the mileage wasn’t entered. I did a little research and found that this particular cluster could only have the VIN and mileage entered after the cluster was installed.

To make things even stranger, in the instance above I found the engine has to be running the whole time during the installation and download. This was a first for me. Normally, you will have a battery tender on to keep the battery charged while performing a program or reflash. In fact, this was the only car I’ve run across where the engine had to be running in order to do the reflash.

In this case, the usual concern of having the battery charge level up to full during the procedure wasn’t as important as how much gas was in the tank. I also had to consider that the gas gauge is part of the cluster, and couldn’t be sure of its accuracy until the programming had been completed. Note to self: Add fuel to the customer’s invoice for cluster replacement.

Time to repair

Now it was time to get down to the repair. The scan tool was warmed up and ready to go. It was a late Wednesday afternoon by the time I was able to get everything lined up to do the download. Rather than close up shop and head home, I figured I’d pop onto the GM website and get it done.

This is where I encountered my first problem. I found out (after buying my three-day pass) that my cable adapter wasn’t ‘adapting.’ I needed a different adapter which I didn’t have, and it took me three days to find one. By this point my subscription had run its course, so I’d have to set this whole thing up one more time … but this time with the proper cable and adapter.

But wait – there’s more to this story. I also found the laptop configuration wasn’t quite up to snuff. I could only go so far before I got an error message that brought everything to a screeching halt. By now, I had resorted to making the call to technical support, and thankfully a fabulous team of experts walked me through the final steps to toggling the correct ‘yes’ and ‘no’ tabs in my settings.

Once all this was done, it was just a matter of waiting for the computer to move the completion bar across the screen to indicate all was well with the digital world, and the VIN and mileage would miraculously appear on the replacement cluster, all while the engine was running.

Was the experience frustrating? You could say that. Did I learn something? I always do in these situations. The lesson I learned on this cluster swap was this: Never underestimate your software and hardware needs when performing a relearn or reflash procedure, even though you’ve done countless reflashes in the past. In a nutshell, the real issue is that what you did the last time may not be the same the next time.

Listening and learning

How can you avoid some of these pitfalls and ‘uh-oh moments’ when you’re getting ready to reflash or reprogram a vehicle? To start out, consider that you might think you’ve got something all figured out, but there’s a good chance you may need to a bit more instructions, or at least a step back to follow up on every detail of the procedure before blindly diving head-first into the repair.

There’s no shame in saying you need to do more research or attend another refresher course, because change in this field is a never-ending issue each and every technician has to deal with. I try to read and follow all the information I can obtain before beginning any of these procedures.

Information access   

All the information you need is merely a mouse click away. Two of the websites you should have close at hand are and Here you will find listed all of the individual vehicle manufacturer’s websites. For example, the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) page has a list of costs for the various manufacturer’s websites. It also lists the length and duration of days, month, and the full year pricing, along with a description of what is covered for the various pricing levels.

Each page of NASTF has not only the information you’ll need to properly gain access to the OEM websites, but also some very informative videos on key coding and an overview of the latest scan tools and testing equipment, including PC requirements. One of the most useful pieces of information accessible on the OEM’s pages are the hardware and software requirements necessary to program a computer on their vehicles. Information such as which versions of Windows are supported, and even which versions of Java that can be used while programming a vehicle. In many cases you will need to reconfigure your computer to revert back to an older version of some software in order to perform a program, especially if you have your computer set to perform updates automatically.

Getting from one of these websites to the actual manufacturer’s page is just the start of the process. Be sure to spend time becoming familiar with your tool manufacturer’s website before diving into programming procedures. Each one is different, and each year of manufacture and/or model may have different requirements. Drew Technologies website has probably one of the most up-to-date libraries of information with known issues when programming and what is required to properly set up the vehicle, the hardware and software in order to complete the process correctly and with no problems.  

New at the process

If you are getting into programming for the first time, there are a few companies that offer remote programming services such as AirPro Diagnostics and Drew Technologies RAP. These remote services provide the equipment required to program the vehicle remotely through a web connection while saving the technician the effort and cost of obtaining hardware and a subscription to acquire the OEM software. This process will also allow a technician to follow the programming process while its being done and will be the “hands” of the remote technician that will go through key on/off cycles and other physical actions necessary to complete a programming event. it’s advisable to take the time to attend the advanced classes that are offered in your area, or at one of the many conventions across the country.

Even after you’ve completed a few programming procedures, it still pays to go back to the manufacturer’s website and review the material and terms of services again and again. Things change on these sites often and not everything will be located in the same place as the last time you visited. Over the last ten or so years, I’ve seen the websites for the various manufacturers go through several modifications and changes. Besides, there’s always something you’ve forgotten or need to refresh yourself on.

As always, the technician as well as the tools need an occasional update. Changes and computer updates are just part of being a technician. The more you know, the more you can do and the better you’ll be at it.

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