The future of diagnostics

The future of diagnostics

PMM ’s Kieran Nee calls on some of the biggest names in diagnostics to get an idea of what the future of diagnostics looks like.

I won’t lie, when it comes to diagnostics, I’m no expert. It is a term whose meaning seems to slip away from me every time I think I have it grasped. For a long time I focussed too much on diagnostics as simply a selection of “ports”, tablets, computers, cables trailing out of cars, various “scopes” and “meters”… In the end, one of our regular contributors helpfully set me straight, making me think of diagnostics as less a procedure, or a selection of tools, and rather as a concept: “The fault codes presented on a vehicle’s OBD aren’t a list of problems,” he explained, “but rather a list of symptoms. Diagnostics is the entire process by which you eliminate potential causes of the problem until you hit upon the real cause.”

Bingo, I thought. That’s something I can understand – it’s a bit like Poirot or Montalbano, solving a crime using the evidence available… only, less exotic and usually in a garage with a frustrated customer asking why they’re being charged for “a scan”. And so, armed with my rudimentary understanding of diagnostics, I set out to find out the latest developments and who better to ask than the leading suppliers of diagnostic equipment?

The essentials

Firstly, I wanted to get an idea of what mightvbe considered “essential equipment” for the workshop when it comes to diagnostics. Maverick Diagnostics’ managing director, Andy Brooke took me right back to basics with this one, pointing out that “first on the equipment list is actually a decent workshop IT system and internet access, this is fast becoming the single largest problem reported by support teams around the world.” A good point, which many have neglected in the past.

Once you’ve got the wifi up and running, however, it’s time to turn to a decent tool, but where to begin? Sealey suggests a multi-manufacturer diagnostic tool, such as the VScan Pro, describing it as “an essential piece of equipment for everyday workshop requirements.” Let’s take a look at what makes it so essential: “The software within the unit allows the user to read/clear fault codes, read live data, carry out component actuation tests, ECU and key coding (some vehicles), battery configuration, DPF, electronic parking brake resetting, oil service reset, throttle reset, TPMS and more.”

Hella’s head of business development, Neil Hilton and Autel’s director, Kevin Brown both went one step further with their list of essentials, with both including ADAS capability as an essential weapon in the modern diagnostics arsenal.

Of course, connecting up your diagnostic tool won’t achieve much if you’re not supporting the battery – and failure to do so could end in disaster. Andy from Maverick stressed that “battery support above 100 amps is essential for any type of serious diagnosis work, although some vehicle manufactures now require this just for quick check or service reset.” Impact Diagnostic’s director, Alex Gillbanks agrees with this, adding “battery support units and diagnostic smoke machines are still two of the most necessary tools in any workshop.”

Smoke machines? I confess, that was a new one on me. I was intrigued. Funnily enough, Sealey has a new range coming out, so evidently they’re a popular workshop addition: “These units allow the technician to pinpoint a wide variety of system leaks including air intake, cooling, evaporation, fuel, exhaust and vacuum systems. Being fast and simple-to-use, these are great time saving tools and are vital when trying to diagnose faults. The units are clean and quick to use and connect to a 12 V vehicle battery. VS868 features both air and smoke modes and is equipped with flow control valve. VS869 features EVAP and smoke mode with flow control valve. EVAP function limits and holds the pressure to 0.8 kg to prevent damaging sensitive components found on the EVAP system. Both models are supplied with cone adapter, power cord clamp, valve core wrench, test oil refill bottle, smoke hose, EVAP connector, universal airbag adapter and rubber blanking cones.”

New product launches

On the topic of new products being launched, Sealey aren’t the only ones. I asked around to find out what new products we can expect to see on shelves over the coming months. From Autel there will soon be an EV bolt-on module for the MS Ultra MS9198 and MS909 models. This will offer technicians the ability to test EV battery cells where obtaining the data requires connecting to the BSM.

Meanwhile, Delphi promised a new tablet in “the near future”, whilst “continuing to expand the coverage of the Delphi Technologies security gateway, which grants technicians access to the latest OEM diagnostics through one easy-to-use portal.” Hella also are focusing on cyber security in their new products, as Neil explains: “We have recently introduced Cyber Security Management access within our standard software, this allows customers to officially access vehicles fitted with these systems and continue working as standard with their mega macs device.” The team at Hella, it seems, have been busy this year, as Neil continues: “We have also just released our Smart Component Help which is an additional function within our software to further assist a technician in identifying the correct part to replace on the vehicle to complete a repair. Our recent introduction of the macsRemote which is a remote services product enables aftermarket workshops to now complete work previously reserved for main dealers, they can now compete with OE franchised dealers with the level of service they can offer their customers. We have also just launched our MT-HV High Voltage measurement module designed specifically to enable workshops to test and repair EVs, this has a capability of measuring up to 1,000 V DC and includes guided measurement software to assist the technician in fault finding.”

Eschewing the trend developing for an all-encompassing, “all-in-one” approach to diagnostics tools, Maverick is “currently developing a new range of budget one make pass-thru dongles, individually tailored to suit the “one make specialist” who wants to dip their toe into the world of dealer diagnostic tools, although pass-thru will never be able to give 100 per cent of the functionality of the original dealer interface, these dongles have been specifically chosen and tested by ourselves to give as near as possible coverage.”

Not everyone, however, is confident about the future for pass-thru technology. Indeed, Alex from Impact Diagnostics says he is “sceptical”, arguing that “if you are going to go through the hassle of getting security approval and installing the software sometimes it makes more sense to just buy the OEM tool.” It is the cost, no doubt, which will be the deciding factor for many workshops unsure of whether to take the plunge on an OEM tool or not.

Simpler tools such as OBD readers are what Sealey and Delphi both point to when asked what technologies they feel are becoming obsolete: “Unfortunately for technicians,” Delphi’s UK marketing manager, Julian Goulding, lamented, “basic OBD readers are becoming obsolete due to their inability to calibrate even when the most fundamental components have been replaced – for instance the air filter, cam position sensor and many other parts. It’s the reason Delphi Technologies’ BlueTech VCI Diagnostic package supports pass-thru diagnostics, enabling techs to repair newer vehicles.” The team at Sealey agree: “Due to the nature of advancing vehicle technology, more in-depth test equipment is needed.”

Andy from Maverick revealed “our sales of scopes have definitely dropped off over the last few years and the uptake in oscilloscope courses show this,” and argues that what is really behind this is an increasing lack of skills: “We find simple comparative testing and component testing is no longer being carried out to diagnose faults correctly, I worry that technicians are being deskilled by the use of fully guided diagnostics, technicians seem to only want to reprogramme modules to fix a fault rather than go back to basics to carry out any other testing using an oscilloscope or a multimeter.”

Similarly, Kevin from Autel sought to emphasise the element of skill and expertise within diagnostics, arguing that every tool has its place if understood correctly: “I’m not sure we want to disregard and knowledge, techniques, or technology that technicians have – that’s not a helpful path, because they never know what vehicles are going to come through their door. Surely it’s a matter of building on the knowledge they have.”

Whilst older technologies may still retain their usefulness, what is undeniable is that new developments at the level of vehicle manufacturer are coming through thick and fast. So how will diagnostics develop over the next five years? ADAS was the answer for many, with Sealey going into detail: “Vehicle and pedestrian safety are becoming more prevalent in car design and development. Diagnostic equipment will pivot towards servicing ADAS applications’ such as pedestrian detection/avoidance, lane departure warning/correction, traffic sign recognition, automotive emergency braking and blind spot detection.”

Bound up with ADAS and this increased pressure on “safety” is cyber security and retaining control over who gets to tinker with a vehicle – basically VMs want the final say over who gets “access” to a vehicle’s data and who gets to provide that access, and they’re using cyber security, whether rightly. or wrongly, as their excuse. Naturally, this dominates much of the answers given. Andy Brooke answers that a “‘line in the sand’ has been drawn by the vehicle manufacturers to the aftermarket tool manufacturers.

Functionality is being strictly controlled by over-the-air updates, allowing vehicle manufactures to have total control over their vehicles’ future updates. This takes work away from the aftermarket and is currently being debated for the next round of block exemption.” Neil from Hella, adds: “Without official access to Cyber Security Management, many current diagnostic tools in the market will have less and less capabilities.”

Remote control

One solution to this is proposed in the form of remote access diagnostics, as, in the words of Impact’s Alex Gillbanks, “not every garage will have the budget or inclination to buy OEM diagnostics. So a remote solution is the perfect “Technician in a drawer” which will then allow access to multiple skilled techs and OEM tools to complete the job on your behalf.” Julian from Delphi agrees, arguing “remote diagnostics and programming should reduce the stress and complications to the technician, by providing pin-point diagnosis and more sophisticated monitoring capabilities.”

I thought it time to reveal my ignorance to my contributors. My understanding, shallow as it may be, was that the ultimate aim of all these sensors and on-board computers and complicated bits of software was to reduce emissions as much as possible. If a vehicle has no direct emissions, like an EV, surely there would be no need for the whole diagnostic process? So does e-mobility signal the death-knell for diagnostics? Well, it was Neil from Hella who summed it up most succinctly: “Definitely not!” Needless to say, everyone agreed with Neil.

However, EV diagnostics certainly is a different prospect, which Autel is already tackling, as Alex from Impact, a dealer of Autel equipment, explains: “No I don’t think it will, in fact Autel have just released a specific EV Package for health checks of the EV directly at the battery. It has brand specific connectors to measure state of charge on Tesla, BMW and VW.”

Sealey went even further in proving me wrong, pointing out: “Given the innovation being put into electric vehicles, plus advanced car safety systems, (ADAS) diagnostic equipment will play an even greater role in fault detection. Many engine management EOBD related sensors will cease to be used but more advanced sensors will be needed to control high voltage battery systems and charging, motor controllers, regenerative braking and more advanced drive systems as vehicle technology naturally develops.”

Before I decided to hang up my spurs in dejection, Andy Brooke’s answer did at least give me hope that my question wasn’t completely misguided: “An electric motor has basically one working part and is nearly 90 per cent efficient, doesn’t need as many sensors and actuators plus zero emission to worry about. EVs still need diagnostics to be carried out, however this is a different skill set, technicians need to learn how to diagnose battery management system, inverter and motor control faults, from what we are seeing already these systems are very reliable, so potentially less diagnosis needed on pure BEVs.”

So, in short, as long as cars are being made they will have faults. And as long as cars have faults, workshops will need to call upon diagnostic equipment to diagnose those faults. Phew!

My special thanks go to Autel, Delphi, Hella, Impact Diagnostics, Maverick Diagnostics and Sealey!

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