Diagnostics in Today’s Modern Vehicles

Automotive technology has drastically changed in recent years. Nowadays, technicians are spending more and more time in front of a laptop than they are turning a wrench. The term “mechanic” is a thing of the past as “technician” more appropriately describes our field.

Today’s modern cars are more complex than ever and require extensive training and know-how to be able to understand these systems. The fact is, cars aren’t getting any easier to work on. Everyday we learn something new, and we have to continue to constantly keep up with this ever changing technology.



Just some of the diagnostic tools in our arsenal | Orion Auto Service

Just some of the diagnostic tools in our arsenal | Orion Auto Service

So what really goes on “behind the scenes”?

What has made the modern automobile so complex from older cars, say cars from the 90’s? A 90’s era vehicle may not seem that old to some people, but in automotive technology, it’s old! If we correlate automotive technology with the advent of personal computer technology, they really go hand in hand. Back in the early 90’s fuel injection systems were much simpler, that is compare to today’s cars. And if we think back to computers of that era, we can picture those old 3.5 inch floppy discs running Windows 95, no wait…Windows 3.1! Those were the days.

As technology changed and personal computing power began to grow, so did the processing power of those ECMs or Electronic Control Units. The need for more “computers” in vehicles began to grow as systems became more complex. A 1990 BMW 535i for example may have had a total of 5-6 control units that ran the electronics in that vehicle. Compare that to a 2010 BMW 535i that can easily reach 40-45 control units and even more on some models. All these control units run on various networks within the vehicle and need to be able to “talk” to one another to get everything working right. As with personal computers, the software in these control units need to be updated from time to time.


An example of this would be a scenario that we ran into recently with a 2008 Range Rover Sport. This wonderful SUV had an issue with the air suspension. The warning light would come on along with an error message in the dash. After diagnosing and replacing a faulty air suspension compressor, the RLC control unit (Ride Level Control) needs to have a software update performed. Doing this software update will prolong the life of the new compressor. Not doing the update is a disservice to the customer as this would only be a short term fix.

There are many other examples where the manufacturer runs into a situation down the road, and addresses the “fix” by a software update. The more expensive alternative is avoided, as with this method, replacing the hardware is avoided altogether.

Performing diagnostics and software downloads would not be possible if it were not for the software that manufacturers have implemented. Currently, BMW, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Toyota have implemented a method where by a technician can download the software to their computer and have access to full dealer diagnostics and programming downloads. This is all subscription based and is easier said than done. There are many variables to consider and one must have some extensive knowledge of personal computers just to be able to properly configure and run the software. We at Orion have been able to successfully run diagnostics and programming sessions on BMW’s ISTA software through the use of their proprietary ICOM interface. Volvo cars are programmed through their VIDA software (shown in the video above). On Jaguars and Land Rovers, we use a pass-thru tool that allows the vehicle to communicate with the IDS/SDD software. Being able to have this information is vital and many more manufacturers are going this route in the near future. This is part of the reason why we must charge a diagnostic fee to be able to properly diagnose an issue. A two minute “free” scan will merely tell us a fault code of what the computer saw that triggered the MIL (malfunction indicator light) or warning light. One must perform test plans that guide us to different tests to ultimately diagnose the vehicle.




In the near future
, there is talk by a certain German automaker of possibly implementing a system where if a malfunction occurs, the vehicle will be able to communicate with a central server and relay information of the malfunction. This will lead to many new exciting possibilities. If you’re on the road for example, far from home, the system could communicate information back to you of what the fault is. If the check engine lights comes on, say for a “evap leak” or other emission related fault, the vehicle could certainly be driven as is until it can be taken back to the workshop. You wouldn’t know this otherwise, and could panic thinking the worst could happen. Dealers will of course get this first at some point, but you can be sure Orion will be on top of this, if it ever develops.

Just when we think we learn a new system, something new will always be on the horizon. Maybe one day we’ll write an article of how outdated automotive technology was back in 2012…