While chassis and engine manufacturers’ proprietary diagnostic equipment is, almost by definition, the gold standard, multi-brand diagnostics systems are more versatile. So says Dave Rees, technical director at Eclipse Automotive Technology, pointing to a system that not only covers trucks and buses, but also trailers, agricultural vehicles and off-highway plant – including auxiliary engines. And he adds: “Dedicated OEM tools all work in very different ways – whereas a single system offers data in a consistent format.”
Texa UK training manager Steve Ball agrees, but adds: “The biggest thing at the minute is Euro 6 coverage.” Why? Quite simply, because independent workshops are now starting to see Euro 6 vehicles coming in for maintenance and repair – not just inspection. So clearly, they need diagnostic software and support services that are up to the job – which explains why some developers have hundreds of engineers working to keep up.
That said, for Rees what matters are practical developments, such as wireless (Bluetooth and WiFi) that enable vehicle interfaces to ‘talk’ to diagnostic PCs. His Jaltest 8.1 Link multiplexer uses Bluetooth 4 to communicate with the Eclipse Testpad Extreme tablet PC at up to 100m. This allows what he describes as a more hands-on approach. “You’ve got a truck in with an ABS sensor problem on the rear, for example. You’re plugged in to the cab, but now you can go to the wheel, spin it and see all the data,” he explains.
In a similar venin, Wabco Wurth’s W.Easy+ also incorporates a WLAN (wireless local area network), allowing several diagnostic systems to be linked to a single computer. Clearly, there is significant potential for cost saving there.
So who – beyond independent workshops, is buying multi-brand diagnostic equipment? Recovery firms are among their number, but also some franchise dealers that need non-franchise work to keep their workshops at capacity. Additionally, some large fleets that buy into brand-specific diagnostics also find themselves going for third party kit – particularly when ‘customer versions’ lack features available to dealers – such as recalibrating speed limiters, or reprogramming the gearbox ECU.
With telematics almost universal on large fleets, and connecting to the vehicles’ CANbus, integration with diagnostics facilities was bound to emerge. However, Eclipse’s Rees is dismissive of some telematics firms’ claims. He also notes that Jaltest’s remote diagnostics works on its own or integrates via APIs to telematics platforms such as Microlise.
The latter can be invaluable: If an error light comes on, you can determine remotely whether the driver can carry on, or the vehicle needs urgent attention or recovery. “Also, the workshop can be advised that the vehicle is on its way so they are ready with the parts before it gets there,” adds Rees.
Interestingly, remote diagnosis also provides a ready platform for surveying a fleet, relating faults to particular models and/or types of operation. Meanwhile, Autocom’s CDP+ and Wabco Wurth’s W.Easy+ offer alternative approaches, with flight recorders gathering test drive data, which can then be downloaded to a PC for analysis. Texa has a similar new software feature dubbed Test Drives, which can record up to 32 parameters for eight hours.
But the ‘Swiss Army knife’ approach to diagnostics is not the only way. Systems such as Knorr-Bremse’s NEO Green offer the gold standard for examining its own braking and trailer systems. And other OEMs’ diagnostics specialise in calibrating TPMS (tyre pressure management systems) or for that matter testing batteries. Rotronics’diagnostic chargers and testers, for example, have cut non-starts by 75%, according to managing director Ken Clark. “Without correct diagnosis and pro-active maintenance, a battery is likely to have its lifespan reduced by 50%,” he warns – adding that his equipment can check the starter and alternator to identify parasitic drains.
What about training? Michael White, IMI product development manager, runs the working group managing content for the IRTE’s irtec technician accreditation scheme, and echoes views from across the transport industry. “Seeing and interpreting an error code is not enough. It gives you an indication of where the fault might be, but it could be another vehicle issue that is causing the symptom.” He doesn’t say diagnostics are irrelevant – indeed, he concedes that the more advanced kit offers guided fault-finding – but he does insist that technicians should follow procedures to get to the right diagnosis.
“Isolating a fault, rather than diving in and saying ‘I know what this is because I’ve done one of these 10 times before’, is important,” says White. “It’s rare to get two faults the same, so people need to change their mindsets and actually follow a process.” Technicians also need to make sure there isn’t a fault that the customer hasn’t raised. Also, rectifying faults is not the end: the final stage of any diagnostic process should be confirming that it hasn’t impacted any of the other systems.
What about that guided fault-finding? Eclipse’s Rees says that, as well as the normal functions (reading and deleting error codes, and providing live data and test values) his system offers ‘troubleshooting by symptom’. If a vehicle is producing white smoke, for instance, the tool offers technicians guidance, using ‘fuzzy logic’. This, he says, builds on the conventional approach. “It gives the error code, and links to a description of the components [wiring diagram, test voltages, etc], but it also gives you a step-by-step process to checking and repairing the fault.”
Ultimately, however, much of a diagnostics system’s value concerns support and training. Eclipse, for example, splits its technical team into vehicle support and IT support. Either can guide the customer verbally, or use Eclipse Assist software to make a direct connection to the PC. Texa, Eclipse and others, such as Maverick Technology and Tecnodiagnostics, also offer in-house training on general operation or specific topics – such as programming trailer ECUs.
How about irtec accreditation and diagnostics? Rees worries that the irtec assessment scheme only includes diagnostics explicitly at Master Technician level. He believes it should be introduced much earlier. “If you test an air dryer cartridge you have to tell the vehicle you’ve done that. They let them use a spanner at 17... Diagnostics are modern spanners. You couldn’t do without them.”
The only caveat: as Texa’s Steve Ball says, technicians must be taught not to miss the basics. “If an apprentice is taught to look, listen and feel it makes for a better diagnosis, rather than going straight for the diagnostic kit and missing the obvious. Often, you get a very basic fault causing really advanced fault codes.”
The next step could be augmented reality. At Automechanika 2014, Texa showed a system that projects diagnostic data directly into the glasses worn by a technician. It could go further, overlaying the how to attach a component on the technician’s view.