High-Tech Cars Challenge Technicians, Too

Technicians are challenged by the tech in today's cars.

Timothy Healey
    Mar 02, 2017 4:10 PM  PT
High-Tech Cars Challenge Technicians, Too
author: Timothy Healey    

Consumers aren't the only ones who have to learn about the tech in new cars.

So, too, do the folks that fix them. High-tech systems such as driving aids are complex, and that's causing problems for the technicians who work on cars – sometimes the repair doesn't get done correctly the first time, due to the steep learning curve. At least, that's what one New Jersey-based technician says.

Janet Bigelow, who is Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certified in several categories, says that the increased complexity in modern vehicles is a stumper for many.

"When I was growing up, most women would ask their fathers or husbands to take the car to the mechanic. The idea was that men knew how to fix cars, while women would get hoodwinked," Bigelow wrote in a blog post. "But after working as an automotive repair technician for the past 16 years, I'd like to share a secret with you – today's cars are a mystery to nearly everybody, including many auto mechanics."

That's because today's cars aren't just mechanical, but they lean heavily on electronics. From Wi-Fi to Bluetooth to USB to computerized engine-control units to drive-by-wire systems, today's vehicles are more wired than they've ever been.

There's also a lot at stake. While it's an inconvenience if an infotainment system fails, it can be a safety issue if a driving aid fails – and not getting it fixed correctly the first time would only exacerbate the issue.

Bigelow writes that the problem is made worse by the fact that the equipment needed for correct diagnosis of problems is sophisticated and expensive. The cost means that independent and franchise repair facilities that aren't affiliated with original-equipment manufacturers the way new-car dealers are might be unable or unwilling to pay for it. Instead, they will use generic diagnostic scanners that don't always paint the full picture.

"Much like an x-ray, a generic scan tool offers a limited view, while in comparison, a factory scan tool is like an MRI of your vehicle," Bigelow wrote. "It takes months, even years, to master the function and operation of each individual factory tool. Factory scan tools, paired with certified technicians, allow access into the vehicle's operating systems. This yields a clearer picture of what's happening with your vehicle, and it can save you a lot of money."

Bigelow used a customer's "check engine light" diagnosis as an example. She says that a scan could show a code suggesting the oxygen sensor is the problem, but the problem may actually lie in a related system.

"The mechanic changes your oxygen sensor based on the limited view of your vehicle and information provided by this generic scan," Bigelow wrote. "Like a blindfolded dart-thrower, the mechanic just took a guess, but it didn't work. The real problem, it turns out, was a simple vacuum leak."

The rest of the post includes some tips on how to make sure your car gets diagnosed correctly the first time and some money-saving pointers – one of which is that a correct diagnosis up front will likely save you money, of course.

The blog is linked here.