Long before the age of Internet access, Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century English author and literary scholar, said, “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” Johnson’s observation accurately describes the automotive repair information access issues of today because, although an auto mechanic might be very knowledgeable, he still needs to seek new repair information the moment he opens the hood on an unfamiliar vehicle.
Information, if you will, is the lubricant for the gears of modern electronic technology. Thirty years ago, good mechanics could often work without the aid of a repair manual because they used their existing knowledge to “reverse engineer” the mechanically controlled systems of the day. In modern times, however, mechanics are confronted with the invisible and often unintelligible instructions written on a memory chip hidden deep inside an engine or body control computer. Without application-specific information concerning the hierarchy of computer-generated diagnostic trouble codes and the order in which those codes should be diagnosed, the mechanic often can’t define and repair an electronics-based problem.
THE COMPUTER AGE
If you’ve spent hours struggling to master a new computer software system, you can well understand how a modern auto technician might feel when confronted with not just one, but hundreds of different software configurations built into the platforms of the 17 different vehicle manufacturers now being sold in our domestic market. Not only are modern vehicles more mechanically complex, their design variations are endless.
To put the information access issue in a historical perspective, when I first opened shop 31 years ago, I usually bought a domestic car, import car, truck, automatic transmission, and labor guide each year. Although the manuals were distilled from the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) repair manuals, they included enough service information to cover just about all repair situations encountered in an average repair shop.
By the early 1990s, the volume of printed repair information had grown to the point that it was physically impossible to provide shelf space for new editions of shop manuals. To add even more volume, the vehicles had become so complicated as to require separate engine electronics, wiring, and vacuum schematics manuals for each model year. So I bought a popular PC-based information system which, at the time, contained approximately 1.5 million pages of technical data, including factory technical service bulletins.
Today, the volume of repair data covering approximately 17 nameplates currently marketed throughout the continental United States for the past 10 years is beyond estimation. For that reason, all auto manufacturers have adopted PC-based information systems and, because application-specific service information is so vital to the diagnostic process, many manufacturers have blended their information and diagnostic systems into one software program.
For the above reasons, most shops now subscribe to aftermarket and OE electronic shop manual systems. Aftermarket shop manual systems can be incorporated into electronic shop management systems or they can be sold as stand-alone systems for use by mechanics working in a shop environment. These information systems, which can easily be updated, contain most of the OE technical information, wiring diagram, and technical service bulletin (TSB) information used for diagnosing and repairing vehicle-specific problems.
Currently, electronic shop manuals are supplied by two major information publishing companies and both can supply this information via the Internet or on DVD. Because the library of DVDs is becoming so voluminous and because online data transmissions are so much faster than in the past, many shops subscribe to an Internet-based information system. Keep in mind that any type of valid service information isn’t free. All of the information systems mentioned below are available on an on-demand or on a daily, monthly, or yearly subscription basis.
Technical hotlines are designed to augment an electronic information system by adding empirical or “pattern failure” information to the diagnostic process. In addition to providing conventional technical guidance, technical hotlines can also be very good sources for finding alternate wiring schematics, maintenance schedules, and vehicle reliability information, all of which supplement published repair information.
While most technical hotlines provide on-the-spot technical advice, some also provide an archival service that can be subscribed to on a monthly basis. A good example of archival data would be a 1998 Mercury Grand Marquis that lacks electrical power to the fuel pump.
For this particular application, empirical information gathered throughout the years indicates that the fuel pump wiring harness is most likely to corrode where it’s routed under the radiator support on its way to the fuel pump. This “pattern failure” information is placed in an archival format that can be accessed by entering the vehicle model and failure symptom. Most technical hotlines are accessed through conventional telephone connections. Archival data, on the other hand, is accessed by subscription through the Internet.
The explosive growth of Internet access has driven specialty technicians or small groups of shop owners to build Web sites designed to assemble and digest empirical information pertaining to auto repair and shop management. The International Automotive Technician’s Network (iATN) is perhaps the largest and best-known networking group for professional technicians and shop owners. The iATN, which was founded in 1995, currently has 64,592 members networking from 153 countries. Member communications are contained in appropriate discussion forums such as industry issues, education, technical discussion, Shop Management, and other forums. The iATN also supports a considerable archival database that contains extensive discussions of past and current technical and management issues. Application-specific data can be accessed by selecting an appropriate forum and typing in keywords and phrases associated with a specific problem. As with any networking Web site, iATN deals more with opinions and experiences rather than hard technical data, so “silver bullet” technical solutions aren’t generally available in the technical forum or archival formats.
OE INFORMATION AND TRAINING
Beginning in 1996, On Board Diagnostic II (OBD II) systems were installed in all domestic vehicles to help reduce exhaust emissions. In contrast to the earlier OBD I systems, OBD II introduced a standardized, 16-pin diagnostic connector and a standardized “generic” set of trouble codes dedicated to detecting common failures in the powertrain and evaporative emissions control systems.
The typical 1996 OBD II engine computer also had at least twice the computing power of OBD I computers and provided a much more comprehensive component monitoring and failure detection system than OBD I. Most OBD II engine control computers therefore have the capacity to accept on-board reprogramming to fix operating issues that had gone undetected during the vehicle’s engineering phase. With the introduction of OBD II, independent shops suddenly found themselves in an unconventional information access setting because an OE scan tool and high-speed, online access to an OE Web site were required to download current reprogramming data.
Beginning in 2000, a pilot program was begun in Arizona to gain access to OE service information. This pilot program eventually matured into the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF), which eventually negotiated access to OE information, equipment, and training with most of the 17 auto manufacturers currently marketing throughout the United States. Thanks to the efforts of the manufacturer and independent repair sectors, NASTF has negotiated access, not only to repair information, but to OE training and OE vehicle security (anti-theft) information as well. This information can be accessed at the NASTF Web site (www.nastf.org).
A LOOK INTO THE FUTURE
As a side note, it’s easy to see why, with the complexities of modern information access, it’s so important to understand that modern auto repair requires significant computer and reading comprehension skills on the part of the technician. Although the idea that our educational system can continue to dump academic underachievers into auto mechanics programs has become obsolete in the face of advancing technology, many educators continue to see vocational education as a quick fix to the failures of the academic sectors. One can only hope that progress in education keeps up with the progress in the field of student endeavors. The secret to success in any highly technical field like auto repair not only lies in acquiring a good foundational education, but in knowing how to, as Samuel Johnson would phrase it, “find information upon it.”
Gary Goms is a former educator and shop owner who remains active in the aftermarket service industry. Gary is an ASE-certified Master Automobile Technician (CMAT) and has earned the L1 advanced engine performance certification. He is also a graduate of Colorado State University and belongs to the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).