Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2012   by Andrew Brooks

The Wired World

Automotive electronics bring benefits - and pitfalls

The unprecedented recent advance in the complexity of automotive electrical systems definitely has a down side as far as Eric Surkari is concerned. The owner and president of Mister Starter Auto Electric, a multi-line remanufacturer of starters, alternators, AC compressors, turbochargers and superchargers, steering racks and steering pumps believes that the automotive industry has embraced a “technology for technology’s sake” mindset, with negative consequences for car owners, the aftermarket and automotive service providers.

“Things are changing a lot today,” Surkari says. “Some of those changes are necessary and some are absolutely not necessary. The manufacturers are overdosing us with electronics.” For one thing, Surkari says, the pervasiveness of electronic control over every kind of automotive system in today’s vehicles is pumping up service costs for end users.

“The biggest problem we have is that a lot of these electrical components, you can’t buy on their own,” Surkari says. “If they’re, say, attached to a turbo unit, you can’t buy just the electronic control unit. You end up buying the whole turbo. So while the component could be worth just $200 by itself, where it should just cost you $200 to replace it, instead you have to buy a $1,000-$2,000 turbo, just because they’ve put the electronics in it.”

The sophistication of electrical systems also forces service operations to commit themselves to a grueling schedule of investments just to stay current, Surkari says. “You need training and equipment, and every year you need new upgrades; it’s all very expensive,” Surkari says. “These days, just to change a light bulb you also have to reprogram the computer that activates the dash light that tells you there’s a problem – you have to hook it to a computer to restore the code. The same with tire monitors. And if you don’t close the gas cap properly the light comes on and you have to take it in to remove the code. Some of this technology really is uncalled for.”

But the technological race is in full swing, says Tom Potter, a senior service engineer with Denso Products & Services Americas. Potter has worked on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles since 2001, and while noting the very high degree of sophistication in this type of vehicle, he points out that newer types of electronic capabilities – such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications that can anticipate and prevent collisions – are under development in the higher end of the market.

“These kinds of new abilities are possible because of the development of the high-speed controller area network [CAN] systems that we have now,” Potter says. “Without high-speed CAN systems we wouldn’t have drive-by-wire cars. Throttle control, steering and so on are all done by CAN systems working off the vehicle sensors. The systems have to be very high speed and very reliable.”

The advent of onboard CAN systems eliminated probably 400 lbs. of wiring and copper elements in vehicles, by the estimate of Potter’s fellow senior service engineer John Otis. And again, the impetus came from the high end. “The S-class Mercedes in the model years 2004 to 2008 had 48 control modules that had to talk to each other, which meant vehicles had to have multiplexer communications,” he says.

Paul McCarney, sales director for Prenco Progress and Engineering, has seen directly the impact that the increased role of onboard electronics has had, in particular since the introduction of direct ignition in the 1990s. “We used to do a lot of wire sets,” he says. “Now we estimate that by the end of 2015, 94 per cent of registered vehicles will have some form of DI system.” McCarney notes that DI systems are increasingly individualized to different models, something that only multiplies the headaches for service operations.

“I’d agree that the difficulty of diagnosis has definitely increased,” McCarney says. “It’s almost forensics to diagnose now. The system could spit out a code that says ‘misfire’ but it takes more digging to find out exactly what’s wrong.”

The sensors themselves can be a problem too of course: McCarney recalls a run on a Nissan coil. “They were literally melting,” he says. “We did all kinds of testing, hours on hours of testing. Turns out it was a bad negative battery ground, and Nissan put out a TSB on it.” There are so many system variations now that each manufacturer has their own idiosyncrasies.

McCarney doesn’t subscribe to the notion that wholesale swap-out and replace has become the default response to a problem, however. “A lot of people now aren’t aware that there are some preventive maintenance parts that can be integrated into the ‘tune-up’ – not that there really is anything like a tune-up anymore,” he says.

A current focus for Prenco is on emphasizing the importance of inspecting the coil on plug (COP) boots. “A lot of people don’t know that with the direct ignition coils, these boots are actually removable and replaceable,” McCarney says. Even dealerships aren’t paying much attention to this opportunity, he observes. “Maybe they’d rather replace the coil than just a boot. But this has a negative impact on the service dollars. If you had an annual or per-kilometre basis where they’re inspected and replaced, the way we used to do with the wiresets, it would give the tech another part of the service package that isn’t being captured right now.”

Prenco has around 115 SKUs in this category alone, but market awareness is lagging and Prenco and other companies are trying to step up their game in this department. So far parts makers have relied on distributors to educate the service centres, but McCarney says they need to go straight to the end user with educational POP materials, and have techs, chains and even dealerships include COP boot inspection on traditional multi-point inspections.

“I went to a major automotive chain to see what they had in the way of selection of COP boots in stock,” he says. “I talked to a seasoned manager and we found a picture of the part online, and he didn’t even know that this was a two-piece part, that the COP boot was replaceable. It’s going to take a lot of education.”

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