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Cracking the Car Codes

They're not even called cars anymore. IBM's pervasive computing unit has dubbed it a "server platform on wheels." OnStar, the in-car communication network, calls it a smart system that can remind you when you need an oil change, while keeping your car data scanned.

Your mechanic is likely to scratch his head and call it a mystery.

After all, according to General Motor's CIO, Tony Scott, by the end of the decade, cars will be averaging about 100 million lines of code. That's at least a tenfold increase since the early 1980s when the onslaught of computerized cars began.

Cars may be getting smarter these days, but training schools can't pump out the technicians fast enough to fix them. And the current crop is increasingly baffled about reading the different trouble codes that computers in cars now transmit when there's a problem, according to analysts and technicians interviewed by internetnews.com.

What's a Mr. Goodwrench to do? If you're GM , you build your own training facilities to match the systems coming out with each new model.

"There is a shortage of technicians right now," said Russ O'Brien, executive director of Raytheon's Professional Services division. Raytheon, no stranger to complex systems in its main business of building military systems, helps operate GM's Service Technical College, which features simulators, a satellite network, one-way video to dealerships and Web-based training.

GM's Service Technical College, which certifies master technicians in all areas of its models, also works closely with high schools and technical colleges in order to recruit the next generation of technicians to fix smart cars.

"More and more of my work includes using diagnostics," said Scott Brown, president and owner of Connie & Dick's Service Center, a repair shop located about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. "There is a lot more code, a lot more going on, and more network communications among other vehicles."

For a service center like Brown's, with an investment in car-scanning tools that read a car's onboard diagnostics (OBD) trouble codes, and the skills to know how to react to the data, business is, well, busy. Brown's shop is part of GM's training network, so he's able to stay up-to-date on techniques involved with using the special diagnostics machines the car makers sell, as well as approaches to fixes.

As a result, repair shops without the skills are contracting their repair headaches to him -- trouble codes and all.

"There are a lot of independent service centers out there, and not a lot of them can accurately troubleshoot and solve customer's problems," said Brown, who is also an administrator with the International Automotive Technicians' Network (IATN.org). "This is part of the misconception the driving public has. They figure the car has a computer on it, the service center has a computer, and you just plug in and it will spit out a report of what's wrong. It may be getting closer to that, but it'll never be that."

Better Diagnostics?

Will the shortage put diagnostics systems that read a car's computer data in the driver's seat? Yes and no, according to Joerg Dittmer, senior industry analyst with research firm Frost & Sullivan.

Remote vehicle diagnostics (RVD), a sub-sector of the telematics market, can provide commercial fleet operators with critical, near real-time data that helps them ensure their cars meet safety and emissions standards.

But car owners are not as inclined to pay extra for them, and automakers are shouldering the costs of these systems for now. Indeed, OnStar, GM's subsidiary, only reached profitability this year after 10 years in existence, he noted.

But Paul Washicko, the CTO of Networkcar, which provides remote diagnostic services to commercial fleets, acknowledged a huge jump in demand for its diagnostic services for commercial fleets in the past couple of years.

Networkcar's devices are attached to cars and are constantly scanning them for trouble codes that an OBD system transmits. It also picks up data, such as vehicle location, fuel efficiency and performance summaries. With Networkcar's system, by the time the cranky car is delivered to the dealership or service shop, the mechanic knows the problem, which saves the shop the cost of connecting the car to an expensive diagnostic machine at the shop.

Smart Car
Diagnostic tools help mechanics assess a car's troubled situation. (Source: IATN)

Networkcar's service has a competitive weapon, too. The monitoring system has reverse-engineered the different diagnostic data coming from different car makers in order to read their models' vehicle codes. It can read Ford's and GM's codes, and even the ISO standard that European car makers use. "Our device interrogates the vehicle BUS and determines which type it is talking to. Nobody on the market today addresses all of those buses with a single device. We have some intellectual property around that," said Washicko.

The company's competitive weapon helps illustrate the platform issue in computerized cars right now. As Frost & Sullivan's Dittmer wrote in a 2004 research report about the RVD market: "A variety of different suppliers are generating a variety of hardware and software applications, with the number and complexity growing every year. The result is a chaotic lack of common protocols not only from company to company, but in some instances, from model to model."

Ideally, Dittmer told internetnews.com, standard protocols would allow modules from many suppliers to easily link together, forming a type of "open architecture." Such a move "would permit a level of standardization to emerge and enable suppliers to benefit from the economies of scale of mass-produced standard protocol devices."

But the RVD market is also taking a cue from the computer industry and shifting away from proprietary standards.

"The good news is there is a move toward consolidating those computers" among car makers who recognize that the after market needs wider access to trouble data from cars, Washicko added.

Make Way For OBD-II, Boutique Software Too

Thanks to ongoing federal mandates, such as the Environmental Protection Agency's OBD-II standard in the mid-1990s, car makers are moving to standardize diagnostic trouble codes from cars, as well as networking protocols for plugging into the cars with PCs. The latest OBD-II requirements are now standardizing data around engine controls and parts of a car's chassis and body, as well as how data are transmitted from one car system to another.

"[OBD-II] has helped because it has created an easy way for most anybody to communicate with a car," said IATN's Brown. "But the standard data set is pretty slow, too," he added. "When you're looking at the live data, you have to limit your data parameters," which slows down the speed with which you can get the data.

Still, the EPA standards have helped spark a movement to make it easier to understand, and even access, a car's trouble data. For example, by 2005, car makers are expected to adopt their car systems to the international CAN (Controller Area Network) standard as the communication platform for all vehicles.

This could be an even bigger boon to diagnostic software providers such as Digimoto. The Wisconsin-based company is among a burgeoning group of boutique software makers whose products turn a laptop into a sophisticated diagnostics tool (provided you get the right connectors to plug it into the car). "A lot of smart individuals are producing PC-based diagnostics," Brown added. "It's a bigger bang for your buck."

And GM isn't slowing down in its continuing search for the right mix of skills for tomorrow's generation of car technicians to train. Ideally, the person likes to tinker with cars, dabbles in software, and is probably a fan of online or computer games, and likes to solve problems, said Hershel Burson, who heads up GM's technician training efforts in partnership with Raytheon.

For every feature added to the vehicle, we have to provide new training to make sure technicians are ready to fix them, added Raytheon's O'Brien. With cars now featuring more than 40-volt systems, and more than 40 modules -- each of which represents a mini-computer system -- "it's more than reading diagnostics machines."

By the end of this year, GM is expected to have trained more than 60,000 technicians on some of these smart car systems, roughly a third more than it trained in 2003.

But there's only so much, as in life, that you can learn in a classroom.

"The more you understand these computer networks, the more adaptive you'll be on these new systems," especially as more hybrid vehicles hit the market, said Brown. "A lot of this comes with intuition, along with knowledge and experience."

After all, Brown adds, cars are getting smarter, but they're also becoming "strange characters."