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Complex vehicles, complex problems

Newer vehicles are getting more complex all the time - so much that they are the most sophisticated technological item in most people’s lives, and nothing else comes close. With all of its interconnected engine, transmission, suspension, brake, traction, safety, navigation and other controls, a modern vehicle is one of the most complex tech items in the world.

New high-end cars operate on about 100 million lines of software code; only Google can top that at 2 billion! By contrast, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner has about 14 million lines of code, a F35 fighter jet about 24 million. A newer vehicle not only drives down the road, but stop safely, round corners precisely, accelerates smoothly, have very comfortable cabins, and are able to operate in temperatures from -30 to 130 degrees.

They can drive down very bumpy roads, go from below sea level (Death Valley) and up to 13800 feet (Mauna Kea) and do this with incredible reliability. It just boggles my mind, but soon cars will be able to do all this without any input from a human. Self-driving cars are just around the corner. It is being predicted that this technology will reduce crashes by 75-80% in the next 10 years.

As you’d expect, diagnosis of the modern vehicle problems continues to get more challenging with all of these new technologies. Yet some customers don’t understand why diagnosis still can be tricky and time-consuming. If we charge for diagnosis, often we are asked, “Can’t you just hook up a machine and get all the answers?”

Our shop technicians, as some in the automotive business, actually spend weekends and evening in classes to learn about the new technology. In these specialty classes, just learning how to use new scanners and all the capabilities is time consuming. These scanners can cost up to $12,000, with monthly maintenance fees of $200 or more and access to factory online manuals adding $300 to $800 month.

Recently, a customer brought us a Mini Cooper and asked us to order and replace its body control module. This module costs about $500 and needs to be “married” to the vehicle, and is ordered specific for that vehicle. Once this unit is “married” to the vehicle, it’s for life. It can’t be used for any other vehicle. We asked if we could please diagnosis the problem first, but the answer was no. So we programmed the new unit and installed it, as per the customer’s insistence, for about $800 (including the part). But the initial problem – inoperable brake lights – still existed. We then diagnosed the problem and replaced the brake light switch for under $140. The customer understood he had a “thinking error” and was OK with us.

Another customer brought in his European import with a check-engine light on and running poorly. We used a specialty scan tool and found a P0301 code, indicating a misfire in the No. 1 cylinder. We called asking for diagnosis time to find out why. He called back and said he just wanted us to replace the fuel injector in the cylinder, a solution he said he found on the internet. Very seldom do we find a fuel injector causing this problem, but he was willing to take the risk. But $245 later, with a new injector installed, the vehicle still had the same problem. We were then given the permission to diagnosis, and it turned out to be two bad spark plug wires to that cylinder. This customer was also very understanding. No, we didn’t take out the injector because by that time it was used.

This problem of self-diagnosis or misdiagnosis also is a problem in the medical field, I’ve been told. My advice is to trust the professional who works on your vehicle; most times it will save time, money and aggravation. In life, I have found that free or low cost diagnosis is worth what you pay for it: very little.


Reminder of winter service and safety tips.

Oil changes, as I have mentioned, are cheap insurance for long engine life. We have come across several manufacturers that suggest extended-mile oil services, and we’ve seen some of their engines need replacement before 100,000 miles. The intervals I recommend are from 5000 to 10,000 miles on synthetic oil. There are exceptions on both ends of this.

Clear all glass before driving (ice, fog, water, dirt), seeing is so important.

Be sure wipers are in good shape; they need to be replaced yearly. Don’t use wipers to remove accumulated snow or ice.

Make sure all lights are working properly and headlights are aimed correctly.

Cold weather inhibits your car's battery ability to produce power. A cold engine needs more power to crank over. Have your battery checked during all services to insure trouble free winter starting.

Tires are your first defense between you and the road. Makes sure tread life is satisfactory, the pressure is set and the alignment is correct. Giving the shape of roads these days, yearly alignments are suggested.

Any suggestions or questions, please email me at [email protected]


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