Reflashing: The aftermarket’s next big challenge

April 16, 2014
In some cases, a “reflash” alone will correct a car’s problem.

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 in 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.

The National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) recently recognized the growing interest in J2534 and made it a focus during the group’s recent spring meeting. A webcast of the NASTF’s J2534 panel discussion can be viewed at for those who want a good overview of what carmakers, tool makers and aftermarket shops are doing to make aftermarket reflashing a reality.

At present, most aftermarket shops are content to send reprogramming work to OE dealers, due to the complexities involved. 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 the majority of shops that can’t do it. Just about every mobile tool distributor knows which shops in his or her market can reflash since they get asked about this by so many of their shop customers.

It’s a safe bet that this window of opportunity will last for several more years at least. No one know 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.

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