In today’s world, the automobile is far more than a mechanical wonder. Computers and data signals are now the norm, and communication between the electronic pathways and the mechanical side of the vehicle all must be maintained as well as upgraded from time to time. It’s not unlike your phone’s apps, which seem to require an upgrade every time you turn around. For vehicles, new situations arise, and new procedures are developed that need to be entered into the vehicle’s matrix. That, of course, is the reason for updates to vehicle software.
When we talk about “programming” it is usually associated with the replacement of a computer or component in the vehicle. Other times, the update may have to do with a TSB. Some programming is only required if you’ve made some major changes, such as replacing the transmission.
So, how does one enter new updates and information? Is this something a DIYer can do, or is this something that needs to be handled professionally? First, let’s discuss where all of this began.
The beginning of the electronic age
The first vehicle manufactured in the U.S., with what we might consider a true computerized system would have been the 1979 Cadillac. Looking back, it was a rather crude attempt at the sophisticated systems we have today. Nevertheless, this model did use a TPS and a ‘revolution counter’ (today, we would refer to it as a crank sensor). Still, the ’79 Cadillac lacked an interface point where a technician could gain access to the computer signals. Basically, there was no ALDL port.
Even before the 1979 Cadillac model, import vehicle manufacturers (which tended to have about a 10-year head start in technology changes compared with domestic models) had introduced the 1974 Type 4 Volkswagen with an electronic injection system. This vehicle had no service port either, and like the Cadillac, most diagnostic work was based on reading the three basic electrical principle players – amps, volts, and ohms – at various test points or connections.
The chip and the car
By the early 1980s, the first aluminum boxes were prevalent in nearly every vehicle. The ECM age was upon us. These early systems were more of a ‘look and tell’ monitoring system. The check engine light was introduced, as well as the service ports for the technician. Back then the ECM could be disconnected and tossed in the trunk and forgotten about because it only watched for trouble and did not evaluate or correct faults. It still left the vehicle with a moderately responsive engine and transmission system. But that was about to change.
At one time, the microchip was the mainstay of vehicle electronics. Again, this chip in comparison to today’s systems was rather simple in its operation. The basic rhythmic patterns of the four-stroke engine could be mapped out on a chip, which allowed timing and fuel to be compensated at various engine loads and speed requirements. These chips became the basis for the first ‘updates’ regarding engine performance.
As time went on, the need for a more in-depth system of checks and balances for the emissions – as well as security – was on the horizon. Things for the technician were about to change again.
A new era of programming
By the time the industry broke away from a physical chip in the vehicle, the modern technician was well on their way to relocating their wrenches one drawer lower to make room for the scanner. These sophisticated machines became the linchpin of programming, reflashing, downloading, and upgrading the software on a vehicle’s computer.
At first the upgrades were on discs, and you merely transferred the data from the disc to your scanner and then entered it into the vehicle. Over time, this changed to pulling the needed information from manufacturers’ websites.
Today, reprogramming choices are once again on the rise. We’ve moved from programming a single chip and snail mailing the replacement chip to the repair shop (as I’ve done in the past), to instantly receiving manufacturer data via the internet. The method has changed, as have basic requirements for shops to do this type of procedure. Now technicians must upgrade scanners as well as a vehicle’s internal information. It’s not uncommon to arrive at the shop in the morning and turn on the scanner only to find it needs an hour of solid downtime to load the latest software.
Technology changes so often that it might be a good idea for some shops to investigate alternatives for their programming needs. Partnering with a mobile technician that specializes in keeping his or her scanners up to date or using a remote access programming service may be better solutions for some, not to mention a more cost-effective way to deal with the issue of constantly updating your software and scanners.
Outsourcing programming might make sense for some shops, based on their physical location and/or lack of the needed equipment. These days mobile programming technology is a great option. These technicians keep up with the various changes from manufacturers, in addition to keeping scanners up-to-date. The one-time cost of hiring a mobile technician might be the answer for those shops that don’t get into programming and reflashing very often.
Another great option is remote access programming. RAP by Drew Technologies is one product that comes to mind. With RAP, the car does not have to leave the service bay while the remote technician (who could be in another state) does the reflash for you. All you have to do is turn the key on or off as dictated by the procedures.
Finally, some shop owners might find their best option is to take this work to the dealer. Dealerships generally have the ability to reflash all of their production vehicles – and at a fairly competitive price. Keep in mind, in some cases a tow charge will have to be included if the vehicle can’t be started until the programming is completed.
Updates are not just for the car or the technician, the shop needs updates, too. Computers are sensitive pieces of equipment and require the utmost care to properly maintain signals as data is being passed from the internet to the vehicle. A battery maintainer is another important piece of equipment, as it is required to hold the battery at the optimum level. The battery maintainer is not a battery charger, but a very precise level of controlled battery input to reduce any ripple effect that could cause a spike or sudden drop in the battery level.
Know that a solid internet connection is a must. A lot of programming instructions state that any loss of power or internet signal could wipe out the PCM once and for all, with no retrievable outcome in the end. This also means it’s best to keep prying hands away from the equipment while the procedure is being performed.
You should also keep your training methods up-to-date. Knowing what you’re doing, and that you're doing it proficiently, is of paramount importance. Read, watch videos, attend classes, and observe other technicians performing the task. All will help make your experience in programming a success.
What do the experts say?
I asked Drew Technologies Product Manager, Glen Eaton, and the VP of Autologic Diagnostics, Kevin FitzPatrick a few questions regarding the future of programming, and where we as technicians and shop owners can expect changes and new developments in the technology. Here’s what they had to say.
Cost is a factor in every situation. It helps to have some sense of what a shop can expect to spend on equipment and programming. Autologic’s Kevin FitzPatrick says, “Equipment and capability costs rise as the repair facility becomes increasingly service ready to properly diagnose, repair, and program multiple vehicle makes. For most shops, it isn’t feasible to own and maintain every factory scan tool, as the upfront and recurring costs can become overwhelming and payback diminishes.”
The Autologic Drive solution offers a high degree of capabilities across multiple vehicle makes –domestic, Asian, and European brands. FitzPatrick says it is reasonable to expect to invest at least $10,000 upfront on equipment and services.
“The shop needs to remember that this investment is a profit center for them to increase car count and ROI dollars," he says. "Even if a programming event costs the shop $125, the shop should be marking up the programming as it would a replacement part on a vehicle, thus increasing profitability.”
Remote Access Programming
With the relation to cost and availability, I’ve heard some great things about remote accessing, but I’ve also heard of limited coverage. The question is, is there a shortage of coverage, or is the coverage for remote accessing continually growing and expanding?
Drew Technologies’ Glean Eaton explained it this way: “Coverage is mainly determined by legislative mandates put on the OEs to provide capabilities to the aftermarket, and then if the OE decides to provide more than the mandate. For example, the mandate for providing emissions related calibrations thru SAE J2534 has an effective model year start year of 2004, but many OEs have released capabilities that go back as far as 1996. For the more recent Right to Repair Act, the effective model year for providing dealership level diagnostics, programming, and service information is 2018, yet some OEs have released information going back to the mid-1990s.”
Specific to remote coverage, Eaton says there are other issues that must still be overcome, such as OE application conflicts, as well as ensuring that the delivery method in which the OE provides the data is stable in a remote assist program environment.
“For locksmith and some security processes, there are limitations for remote programming due to the current requirements of the SDRM process, but we expect this to be overcome in the near future through changes to that process,” Eaton says.
Programming via satellite directly to the vehicle
I asked Eaton if he thought the bulk of programming and updates will be handled directly from the factory to the vehicle via satellite in the future, bypassing the need for the mechanic to input the data.
“This is an ongoing debate,” Eaton says. “Over-the-air programming is being done today, but [mainly affects] non-critical components of the vehicle like infotainment features. Once you get into safety and drivability, OEs have not gone to that level for obvious safety and even liability reasons. Beyond that, never say never.”
Older vehicle programming
I’ve also noticed that a number of aftermarket scanners have come up with ways to reflash older models (10 to 20 years old) and are slowly gaining more information on the newer models. As vehicles age with time and new technology is added, these older models may still have an affordable advantage over the newer models. I asked FitzPatrick whether his company is working towards more coverage on vehicles coming out of warranty and updating their scanners to handle more information or even surpass the standard manufacturer’s practices.
“Autologic is always investing heavily into [the] development of software and capabilities,” FitzPatrick says. “Scan tool capabilities are constantly improving across all lines and diagnostic software is becoming somewhat of a commodity. Today’s repair facility generally has multiple diagnostic platforms that are very competent, but they often lack the diagnostic expertise of the OEM and the programming coverage of the OEM. Without access to that knowledge base, many repair facilities lose a lot of time and money misdiagnosing vehicles.”
Both Eaton and FitzPatrick agree there is no turning back from the days when you could go into a parts store and have an ECM checked or even programmed like we did in the 80s and 90s.
“The industry is moving forward as it embraces technology, and remote access and programming is the future,” FitzPatrick says.
It’s obvious that programming and reflashing today’s vehicles is a growing business. How involved you choose to become depends on your shop and the needs of your customers. My advice: Don’t skimp on it. Learn it, know it, and make it a part of your shop.