When Jim Dykstra became part owner of his family’s auto repair service business in 1994, mechanics diagnosed car problems by looking under the hood. Soon after, car manufacturers started to add computer controls to vehicles’ steering wheels, airbags, brakes, windows, mirrors, and just about everything else. Dykstra’s current Audi has around 75 computer modules in it, and employees at his three repair shops near Grand Rapids, Michigan, are more appropriately called “technicians” than mechanics.
Technicians often start a repair not by poking around an engine, but by plugging a computer tool into what’s known as an “On-board diagnostics (OBD port”—a cracker-sized opening, often located under the dashboard, that looks similar to one you may have seen on a computer monitor or DVD player. They then read trouble codes from those tools’ screens. “P0306” means a cylinder 6 misfire. “P2706” means a shift solenoid F malfunction. Other trouble codes require specific software or access from different manufacturers to read and understand. There are tens of thousands of codes, and the way to fix the problems they diagnose might be different for every single make and model of car.
Fixing some problems in today’s new cars requires some relationship with their manufacturers. This has been the subject of a massive negotiation, similar to the debate over whether smartphone manufacturers like Apple should make it easier for other companies to fix their phones. With cars, though, the whole argument is about to change: because as much as computers have already changed cars, connecting those computers to the internet could change the auto industry even more.
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