What is with all the new interest in music? Everywhere in the car industry and the aftermarket, people are talking about the “tuner” market. Are they talking about the old stereo of Dad’s in the den? Maybe they are talking about the newest disk player that can support mpeg and iPod? No! The interest is all about car enthusiasts taking back control of the vehicles they drive and how the vehicles perform.
In 1983, Ford Motor Company introduced the EEC-IV system for controlling ignition signals. Around the water coolers and in shops across the country many owners lamented how the “average Joe” could no longer hope to work on his car. Many said things like “you will have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out.”
Ford wasn’t alone back in the early ’80s in introducing computer-controlled spark and fuel systems. The pressures to develop cleaner operating and more fuel efficient vehicles forced the OEMs to turn to electronic solutions. The days of the points and condenser were quickly a thing of the past. The conversion to electronic controls came quickly. With the changes in the systems on the vehicles came the need for different solutions on how to repair the vehicles we drive today.
In this article, I hope to bring to light some of the solutions available today to the professional technician, as well as the weekend racer and the traditional do-it-yourselfer.
This is a great time to talk about a fundamental change that has occurred as the population becomes more and more proficient and comfortable with the use of computers. Just a few years ago, as cars were becoming more complicated, the general population was still playing catch-up. Things have changed dramatically. Everywhere you look people are using computers. Children have computers in kindergarten classrooms.
The point here is that 15 years ago when I stood behind a parts counter, we couldn’t give away scan tools or multimeters. Today, the aftermarket sells millions of dollars of these tools annually.
There are two distinct segments to scan tools and scan software. The first is repair or diagnostic products. These tools are designed to help pinpoint a problem. Generally, these tools are called scan tools, code readers or scopes.
The second type of tool is a performance tool used by tuners and enthusiasts to customize the way that a vehicle operates for a specific application. These tools have the ability to reset or “re-flash” a vehicle’s software. This allows the technician to modify the original factory settings to perform differently under certain conditions.
Because we need our vehicles to perform under many different operating conditions, the factory settings are always a bit of a compromise between fuel economy, power, smoothness, torque and speed. While this is the right thing to do for our daily operations, in many cases, this leaves vehicles not performing to their full capabilities. Tuners have learned to squeeze those extra few horsepower out of a vehicle. By understanding the relationships between fuel, air mixture, ignition control and timing, tuners can significantly improve the performance of a modern computer-controlled vehicle.
When considering the purchase of scan tool products, first determine what your goals for the tool are. Below I will give a brief explanation of the types of scan tools.
A “code reader” is a tool that captures diagnostic trouble codes (DTC). These tools present the user with either flashing lights, much like Morse code, or the actual DTC. The better code readers will give a brief description of the code on the screen. These tools by themselves are only a diagnostic tool to point the user in a general direction.
As an ex-parts person, I always flinched a little when people said they wanted to buy a code reader. I knew that in many cases, like all things in life, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. For the technicians reading this, you will especially appreciate the fact that about 90% of the buyers of those code readers always came back wanting to buy an oxygen sensor. These are great first-line tools when used for what they are intended.
Stand-alone scan tools are full diagnostic scan tools with the ability to capture codes, look at live data, and, in many cases, re-set or change settings on the vehicle. Some of these scan tools also feature bi-directional capability. This function allows a user to turn on and off components on the vehicle for the purpose of testing and diagnosis.
The better scan tools will have scopes built into them that allow the user to evaluate wave forms for signals generated by sensors on the vehicle. One of the most popular scan tools also is expandable to allow the user to do gas analysis, which is becoming more and more important in determining what is going on under the hood.
Dedicated Programmer Tools
Dedicated programmer tools are the newest addition to diagnostic tools and the hottest tools available to tuners. These hand-held tools can not only access the car’s OBD II system, but more importantly, they can actually reset or “reflash” the car’s onboard memory. These tools are designed to help diagnose specific makes, models and years of vehicles.
These tools have the ability to store different tune configurations, as well as the vehicle’s baseline tune as it came from the factory. The beauty of this is that it allows the technician to try different set-ups without the fear of not being able to put the car back to original when he is done “testing.”
Dedicated programmer tools come with other cool bells and whistles too. These tools have bi-directional capability, which is simply the ability to turn things on and off in the car’s computers. This feature comes in handy when, for example, the vehicle includes anti-slip control, which is a safety device to keep the wheels from spinning during acceleration. This is a great idea unless you are building a car to drive at the drag strip and then it’s a problem.
PC-Based Scan Tools/Software
Many tuners like the PC-based scan tool solutions for the flexibility they afford. PCs allow the user to store, compare, modify and print data. This is probably the most flexible and powerful solution of all the scan tool options. The user, in most cases, will use a laptop configured with software to capture information from the vehicle. This provides the tech with the ability to drive the vehicle in real-world conditions as opposed to just sitting in the bay.
Information can be captured and then brought back and uploaded onto a stationary workstation PC. This information about the customer and the vehicle can then be stored at the repair facility.
There are many providers of PC-based software that sell software designed for specific model vehicles.
PDA-Based Scan Tools/Software
Another one of the newer solutions allows technicians to use small hand-held computers as scan tools. PDAs (personal digital assistants) were originally designed to be address books, but like all technology, they evolved into more powerful tools. Software companies have rushed to create programs that can operate on these platforms. The OEMs are leading the charge in this area as they provide dedicated and proprietary software for their vehicles.
PDAs are a technician favorite for their size and portability. These small personal computers pack quite a punch. The tools now have the memory and processing power of traditional PCs. Technicians can use a PDA in real-world conditions without fear of dropping or damaging a larger laptop. In many cases, a technician will use a PDA-based scan tool program to capture data at the strip or during road testing. He can then bring the unit back to the shop workstation and upload the data onto that computer for storing or analysis.
No matter which platform or tool configuration the technician ultimately settles on, one thing is for sure: It is basically impossible to work on today’s complex computer-controlled vehicles without these incredibly powerful and flexible tools.