Despite the industrys efforts to the contrary, the public continues to view the modern automotive technician as a shirttail-out, knuckle-dragger for whom computer literacy is as foreign as a bar of soap and a tub full of hot water. Unfortunately for the industry and the public as a whole, this view is as archaic as chrome bumpers and tail fins.
The truth is, many modern technicians may be more familiar with on-line information technology than many other professions. Why so? Lets take a quick look at the effects that computerization has had on modern automotive technology. In 1970, an experienced technician carried most of his technical information around in the most efficient computer of all, the human brain. This was possible because, although vehicle cosmetics have changed dramatically, the basic vehicle had changed relatively little since the Model T Ford days.
As on-board electronic engine controls became the rule rather than the exception, the information load became so voluminous that only a small portion of vehicle repair data could be committed to human memory. By 1990, the industry clearly found itself on an information overload. It became clear that the human brain, after all, had finally reached its limits in dealing with the multiplicity of operating strategies found in modern electronic engine controls, and that the only way to diagnose a computer is with another computer.
SYMPTOM VERSUS SITUATION
Why has modern information technology become so important in the service bay? Going back 20 years, most technicians diagnosed most engine performance problems by symptoms. In other words, a surging complaint was usually caused by a lean fuel mixture, which, in turn was caused by a clogged fuel filter or a bad fuel pump. Oil-fouled spark plugs, burned distributor contact points or an open-circuit spark plug wire usually caused an engine misfire. These symptom or pattern failures accounted for at least 90 percent of all driveability complaints at that time.
By the model year 2000, a cylinder misfire complaint might be caused by not only the bad spark plug or spark plug wire, it might also be caused by a clogged fuel injector, a bad fuel injector driver in the PCM, a dirty mass air flow (MAF) sensor, a vacuum leak, a bad ignition coil driver in the PCM, clogged EGR valve ports or a leaking cylinder head gasket.
So diagnostics therefore evolved from symptom diagnostics to what I call situational diagnostics. In other words, we first must determine the diagnostic situation by accurately describing the driveability complaint, listing the conditions under which the complaint occurs, analyzing diagnostic trouble codes, including pertinent data stream information, and ultimately compiling all of that information into a format that will deliver a diagnostic strategy and repair solution.
Technical telephone "hotlines" immediately became popular in the years after electronic engine controls were introduced. But early telephone hotlines had a singular weakness: the hotlines diagnosis depended upon how well the technician verbally described the problem in situational terms and supporting information like voltage readings and scan tool trouble code and data read-outs.
Verbal information has its limits because, if the technician talks too fast or forgets to mention a critical piece of information, the hotline diagnostician may himself make incorrect assumptions. Consequently, the batting average at that time for most technical hotlines hovered around 30 to 50 percent. In some cases, the accuracy and efficiency of many hotlines became so questionable that many technicians and shop owners simply gave up using them.
But, lets look at how on-line information technology has changed the diagnostic process. A major hotline service, for example, has added an on-line component to its traditional telephone hotline. Although a tech can still access the traditional telephone hotline, he will often find that its much more effective to access the technical service online.
To illustrate, the tech enters into the computer critical information about the vehicle including vehicle identification, the apparent complaint, apparent symptoms and accumulated technical data. At this point, he may access a pattern failure analysis segment of the hotline that describes or correlates the observed performance symptoms and data measurements with common electrical problems and component failures. Or, if hes accumulated enough test data, he can access a go, no-go diagnostic flow chart that helps him arrive at what is called a probability diagnosis.
In other words, an intermittent no-spark failure might be caused by a defective crankshaft position sensor 90 percent of the time on a specific type of vehicle. Or, in another application, a defective ignition module might cause the intermittent spark condition 50 percent of the time.
Of course, the telephone hotline isnt really dead. The technician may also type in the complaint, symptoms and test data to be analyzed by an experienced hotline technician. After analyzing the data, the hot line tech telephones the shop technician with an answer or a request for more specific information.
On-line automotive technician networks are now becoming one of the most effective formats for dealing with numerous automotive service issues, including technical topics and diagnostic problems. The International Automotive Technicians Network (www.iATN.net), for example, has numerous forums in which shop owners and technicians may exchange ideas on various aspects of the automotive service industry. The forums include specialized technical areas including air conditioning, transmission and heavy-duty fleet services. The iATN forums also include shop management, industry issues, education and many other topical discussion formats.
Most relevant for shop technicians, however, are the technical forums devoted to understanding technical issues and solving specific technical problems. Technicians, for example, may post lab scope waveform patterns and other technical data in order to get advice from some of the most knowledgeable technicians in that field. The technical archives also yield a treasure of on-line "fixes" that have solved many similar problems for technicians working in most areas of the world, including Africa, Australia, Europe and Asia.
In still another twist to the on-line saga, technicians specializing in specific nameplates or skills have created their own websites in which they discuss case studies or they post specific types of educational materials. In this type of format, the technician specialist devises faster and more accurate methods of diagnosing specific problems than what is contained in the auto manufacturers shop manual. The information is then "sold" via a subscription to a specific website. The success of several of these websites indicates just how high of a value many technicians place on having access to first-hand technical information.
GETTING THE PARTS RIGHT
As vehicles have become more complex, so has parts proliferation. Worse still, the aftermarket parts industry still hasnt developed a standardized parts vocabulary. To better illustrate, the miniature electric motor that controls idle speed on fuel-injected engines may be known as an idle speed control (ISC), idle air control (IAC), an idle air bypass valve, or by a number of other names and acronyms. Consequently, its become very frustrating to order electronic engine parts by name only.
In addition, many shops want quick turnarounds on part orders. They may also want to compare prices or shop availability, as the case may be. In response, most major program distributors have developed on-line cataloging for shops that, when combined with shop management programs, have become a potent force in shaping the modern industry.
At least one major aftermarket distributor has taken the process one step further by developing a wireless computer designed to operate in a service bay environment. With this wireless computer, a technician may (without stepping out of the bay): access a vehicles service history; access the data contained in its engine management computer, numerical and waveform data in the vehicles computer management system; access pertinent diagnostic and repair data; utilize a technical hot line; access parts cataloging; estimate the repair; and relay the results to the service advisor working at the front desk.
As for the importance of on-line communications, you many notice the number of times Ive used the word "access" throughout the above text. The reason is basic: access, after all, is what the world of online communications in the modern service bay is all about in todays automotive service industry.