Auto Service World
Feature   January 1, 2006   by Jim Anderton, Editor

Do we have the tools we need?

The growing and sometimes excessive complexity of modern vehicles is a common complaint among SSGM readers, and my position is well known. I don't think we need microprocessors to drive the windshield...

The growing and sometimes excessive complexity of modern vehicles is a common complaint among SSGM readers, and my position is well known. I don’t think we need microprocessors to drive the windshield wipers, or set the defroster temperature. Consumers, however, buy the cars and they love the gadgets. Until they break, then we’re the bad guys for replacing that $1000 circuit board. That’s just a reality of modern automotive technology, but what’s coming in the next few years has me wondering if we’re ready to cope. Multiplexing of signals is going to reach down into lower price vehicles. That means fewer wires, but more complex signals going down those wires. Sensors will have built-in signal conditioning computer chips that will integrate, condition and massage the sensor’s output. Suspect a coolant temperature sensor? Right now, it’s just an electric thermometer, but in the future, it will estimate the rate of engine warming and predict the engine’s running temperature to the ECU. The days of sensors failing open or not at all are numbered. On the actuator side, they’ll report back their position to their controller, maybe over the same circuit that drives them. You see a little of this in modern EGR valve technology; I used to suck on the vacuum port, lift the diaphragm with my finger to kill the idle and clean it by banging it against the garage wall. Try that today! We’re going to need new tools, primarily sensor simulators and testers that can determine if sensors and actuators are not just doing their jobs, but reporting their positions accurately. Will OBD be enough? I doubt it. The problem with OBD is that it still can’t reach out accurately enough to specific systems. And if underhood systems start to multiplex, a sensor or actuator signal might be coded and decoded twice or three times before the computer sees it. We’re going to need to determine where the problems are without back probing a half a dozen systems. And the number of new vehicle models is proliferating, making the amount of information needed colossal. Why can’t manufacturers standardize sensor and actuator designs? Fuses are interchangeable between models. Why can’t coolant temperature, MAP, MAF and other sensors be standardized? If we have to have stepper motors driving the heater’s blend air doors, why can’t they be the same for all North American, Asian or European vehicles? I’ve used universal oxygen sensors with great success … why not standardize the connectors? The Big Three, especially Ford and GM talk about the threat from Asian brands, but what better way to push back than set up a common standard for basic replacement items like sensors, actuators, coil packs and injectors? Do we need hundreds of variations on the in-tank fuel pump? There are serious saving to be had for the OEM’s here, savings which would also ripple through the aftermarket. And easier to repair, cheaper to own vehicles will stay on the road longer, benefiting our industry, as well as the second or third owner, who can least afford four-digit repairs. But is anybody in Detroit listening?

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