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.”

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