How to choose the best tools for collision repair diagnostics

Aug. 4, 2016
As technological advancements continue with vehicles, diagnostic tools become increasingly necessary during the collision repair process.

Over the last several months, few topics in the collision industry have been discussed more than collision repair diagnostics – an important and critical issue considering dash lights, sometimes thought of as a crude diagnostic tool, often do not inform technicians of any problems with adaptive cruise control, hands free calling, park assist and more, which can critically affect passenger safety.

With the number of collision mitigation, advanced vehicle safety and driver convenience systems on today’s vehicles growing at an enormous rate, it’s no surprise scan tools are gaining popularity. For many in the collision repair industry, the process and requirements aren’t widely known. What is becoming more widely known is that to ensure complete, safe and quality repairs, most of today’s late-model vehicles require some type of scan tool, calibration or diagnostic work following collision repairs. This is raising questions about when, why and how to repair these oftentimes complex systems. Repair professionals are trying to keep pace and are looking for the best tools to meet their needs. Figuring out which scan tool is best for each repair facility is going to require some research and planning.

Subletting this type of work is becoming less desirable than it was previously because of the number of systems and vehicles that require this type of work. Some estimate that 70 percent of today’s collision repairs require some type of diagnostic work. If you’re subletting 70 percent of the vehicles you repair, cycle time will be negatively impacted and your workflow process will likely be adversely affected. This also will impact your customer and may cause delays in delivering their vehicle in a timeframe that meets their expectations. Delays in delivering a vehicle back to the customer also causes an increase in length of rental, a key performance indicator closely monitored by many insurers.

Implementing collision repair diagnostics into your repair plan will improve your cycle time, reduce supplements, reduce sublet operations and likely improve the customer satisfaction that comes with a complete, safe, quality repair. Another benefit, to you as the collision repair provider, is that you may be able to “upsell” repairs to the vehicle owner for issues not related to the collision, which may result in referrals.

Often, sensors and cameras of these systems are in areas frequently damaged in collisions. Many of the adaptive cruise control radars are located in the grille area or behind the front bumper. Lane departure/lane keep assist system cameras are usually found near the rearview mirror and often require replacement or calibration following glass removal and installation. While collision repair professionals are becoming more familiar with the existence of these systems, there seems to be a lot of confusion about when exactly a scan tool is required. Repair professionals also have a lot of questions about which type(s) of equipment is going to best meet their needs. Similar to other pieces of equipment collision repair facilities have invested in, it’s important to do thorough research to determine which type of equipment is best for your repair facility. There are differences in equipment and you’ll want to make sure you invest wisely.

Choosing the best options for your facility

Before investing in tools and equipment, you first need to determine what level of collision repair diagnostics you want to be able to perform:

  • Do you want to be able to read and clear codes?
  • Do you want to be equipped to handle some basic diagnostic work?
  • Do you want to incorporate advanced diagnostics, such as engine performance, driveability and emissions work into your operation?
  • Do you want to be able to perform post-repair calibration requirements?

If you’re going to focus on post-repair calibration, you will have different needs than an advanced service technician performing in-depth diagnostics on driveability and emissions. Determining how deep you want to dive into diagnostics will be extremely helpful in identifying the tool, or tools, that will best fit your needs.

You will want to review your repair orders over the past several years to determine which makes and models you’ve worked on most frequently. It also may behoove you to review the types of repairs you’ve done frequently. If you can identify the top few makes of vehicles you repair, and the percentage of work they account for, you’ll be in a much better position to identify the best tool(s) for your repair facility.

Yet another important decision before you invest in a tool is to determine which, if any, of your technicians you’re going to lean on for collision repair diagnostics. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have technicians that are comfortable doing electronic repairs and troubleshooting?
  • Do any of your technicians have experience with specific scan tools and what did they like, or dislike, about that particular tool?
  • Do you have technicians that are more computer-savvy than others?

Communication and comfort with the repair requirements will be key to successfully implementing collision repair diagnostics into your workflow. If you determine that you’re going to need to hire a new technician to lead your diagnostic work, you may have to alter your interview process to ensure that the person you’re hiring has the knowledge and skills required for the specific types of work you’ll be performing.

OEM scan tools

OEM scan tools are widely available to repair professionals and offer the most comprehensive capabilities for that vehicle make. The engineers that design the vehicle systems are the same ones that are involved in the design of the scan tools. OEM scan tools will be compatible with an entire model lineup and can access more vehicle systems than aftermarket tools will typically be able to. OEM scan tools may be the best option if you primarily work on one or two vehicle makes. If you were armed with a couple of OEM scan tools for the majority of your work, you’d be in a position to sublet other work for those makes that you work on less frequently.

One of the drawbacks of an OEM scan tool is that you will need multiple scan tools if you don’t work prominently on a small number of makes. This can be a hefty investment and, if not implemented properly (training, staffing, etc.), it may not be a wise investment.

To aid in providing scan tool guidance, the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) has compiled a matrix of OEM scan tool and service information on their website. The matrix includes almost all OEMs and includes information on the available scan tool models from the OEM, online service access information and which models and years have reprogrammable modules. NASTF also has included system requirements for computer-based scan tools.

The matrix can be found at:

If you’re leaning towards an OEM scan tool (or a few OEM scan tools), you’ll also want to determine if there is training available from the OEM on using that tool. A quality tool, without proper training, will likely limit the types of work you’re able to perform and will likely lead to frustration for you and your technician.

Aftermarket scan tools

Aftermarket scan tools offer the flexibility to work on multiple makes and models, while offering many of the features that OEM scan tools do. Many of the aftermarket scan tools are designed to read and clear codes, along with allowing technicians to diagnose and troubleshoot engine, driveability and emissions related data. They haven’t, historically, been designed to meet the needs of collision repair professionals and the post-repair calibration that is required with many of today’s advanced safety and driver convenience systems. You’ll want to confirm with the tool representative that the tool(s) they offer meet your needs.

Systems that you’ll want to ensure you can work with include the restraint system, lane-keep/lane-watch, adaptive cruise control and blind-spot warning. I-CAR, through its Repairability Technical Support (RTS) Initiative and its Tool and Equipment Industry Segment Advisory Council (ISAC) are beginning to work with many of the aftermarket scan tool makers, through the Equipment and Tool Institute (ETI) in an effort to provide more options for the collision repair market.

You’ll also want to pay particular attention to the features of the aftermarket scan tools you’re researching to ensure you don’t ‘buy up’ to something you don’t need. You’ll want to marry the types of work that you’ll be doing to the tool and may not need the most advanced tool the company offers. For example, if you don’t need a scope, you won’t necessarily need a tool that offers that feature.

Similar to any new piece of equipment, you’ll again want to ensure that training is available for the aftermarket scan tool in order to fully leverage all of the tool’s capabilities.

Remote diagnostic tools

A relatively new entry into the scan tool arena is the asTech 2, from Collision Diagnostic Services (CDS). The asTech 2 isn’t actually a scan tool, but has the ability to communicate with OEM scan tools, remotely. One unique feature of the asTech 2 is that it is designed specifically for the collision repair industry. To use the asTech 2, the collision repairer connects one port on the tool to the OBD-II Data Link Connector (DLC) of the vehicle. Another port is connected, via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, to the Internet. This allows the aTsech 2 to communicate to a similar tool located at the offices of CDS where a factory trained technician accesses an OEM scan tool. The “remote technician” can scan the vehicle, reset fault codes, reprogram control modules and perform post-repair calibrations. The remote technician also will run a full report, outlining any fault codes.

Your technician will still have to access the OEM service information to follow the troubleshooting steps for each of the fault codes and to replace any damaged parts. This also will require an additional scan to clear any codes, once the system has been repaired.

One thing that you likely won’t be able to do with the asTech 2 is any calibration that requires a test drive, as the vehicle will not be able to maintain communication with the CDS remote technician.

Other considerations

There are a few other factors to consider when making the decision to implement collision repair diagnostics into your repair process. Depending on the vehicle maker, special aiming mats or targets may be required, in addition to the scan tool, regardless of whether you purchase an OEM scan tool or one of the alternatives outlined. Ford Motor Company, for example, requires 360-degree camera aiming mats to calibrate the 360-degree camera option available on some Ford vehicles (See a video of how to do some of the repairs through the I-CAR RTS Portal here:

Other vehicle makers offer targets for aiming adaptive cruise control systems, and many have specific weighted devices for calibration of occupant classification systems (OCS). You’ll need to access the OEM service information to determine the specific procedures for each of the systems.

Other requirements may require some modifications, or expansion, of your repair facility. For example, a flat surface, with little to no height variation in the shop floor and enough space in front, behind, and to the side of the vehicle may be required to perform some of the calibration processes required. Other requirements may include specific lighting for some procedures. It’s important to be aware of these types of requirements before diving into the collision repair diagnostic business.

If you’re serious about getting into more diagnostics, you may want to go as far as designating an area of your facility specifically for these types of repairs, similar to an aluminum clean room, and stocking it with wire repair kits, DVOMs, computer access, scan tools and other diagnostic repair equipment.


The advancements in vehicle safety and driver convenience systems will continue to advance, including an agreement between the OEMs, NHTSA and others that by 2022, collision mitigation systems will become standard on vehicles sold in the United States. While this may reduce the overall number of collisions, it will increase the number of vehicles that qualify for collision repairs, as those vehicles will be involved in slower speed collisions and total losses will be reduced.

Investing in tools, equipment and training now will prepare you for the increase in vehicles equipped with this technology.

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