How many brains does it take to fix a car?
Throughout the evaluation of the modern car
there have been an increasing number of duties
taken over by computers. These computers have
not only made the engine more fuel efficient, but
also more environmentally friendly. Nowadays,
these systems are starting to think for themselves
and make decisions for the driver. Things like
parking the car, keeping a safe distance from
the car in front of you, or avoiding accidents
are just a small part of the capabilities of the
modern computer driven automobile.
In some ways the car has become a thinking, reasoning, and quite capable robotic apparatus. You're not sure of that? Really? Let's define robotic function and a robot’s task. A robot is a device that manipulates its surroundings by way of certain inputs, which are dictated by the software or information instructions set into its protocol. In a sense the information in its brain. Not all “robots” are in a form of the walking-talking version; a robot can be stationary and perform one task over and over again. Take for example ABS (Anti-lock Brake System). This can be considered a robotic function. The ABS module (or brain) is given a task by way of its programming, and in turn watches for certain input signals from various sources such as the wheel speed sensors, brake pedal application, and engine and transmission inputs. It’s a stationary robot in a non-stationary setting. If the system fails to follow the preset instructions it gives the human an indication of its condition by way of a service light. The repair needed is still left up to the technician. I'm kind of glad for that, as I don't know if I'm up to dealing with the “Terminator” mentality of a walking, talking robotic device that inevitability figures out it's smarter than its creator. These days a modern technician uses a computer to talk to the vehicle’s computer. That makes it three “brains” involved in determining the reason for the service light: two cyber brains and one human brain. Each one of them has to do their job correctly. When one or more of these “brains” malfunctions, (and yes, I do mean the technician’s too.), the whole process of figuring out the problem becomes a lesson in futility. I recently had a car in the shop that wasn’t communicating with any of my scanners. As the technician, aka “The Human Brain”, it was my task to figure out why and where the lack of communication was emanating from. It wasn't long before I tracked down the culprit. Not only was the main PCM in the car dead, but so were several other processors as well. Looks like a case of brain damage to me. All the usual suspects for this type of problem, such as powers, grounds and communication lines checked out to be in good condition. The test results showed that the car had been struck by lightning. Looks like this little robotic wonder of modern technology had been done in by Mother Nature herself. Even in the electronic age…Mother Nature still rules. But among the variations of problems a technician can run across are those occasions where the car is fine, but its second brain (the “scanner”) is damaged in some way. On occasions I’ve had to deal with an uncooperative scanner. After countless times of getting in and out of a car, the endless twisting and manipulating of the cords and connections, the scanner can come down with its own form of brain damage. Sometimes it’s the service cord at fault, and other times it’s the scanner itself. (I keep the shipping boxes just in case I have to send one in for repair.) The big problem for the consumer these days is the modern car can't function without these computers, nor can the modern technician diagnose or repair a lot of the functions without a computer to talk to the car. We've become so dependent on the electronic wizardry of these modern conveniences that our world today couldn't function as we know it without them.
Sometimes I feel like I've got brain damage myself when I’m trying to figure out the multitude of problems brought on by all these electronic components. There are many numerous problems that only exist in today’s cars because of all these technical advancements. You wouldn’t see some of these problems in a car without a computer under the hood. In years past a lot of car components were rebuilt right in the shop, and most everything was a “hands-on” repair. A mechanic removed a part, and would take it down to its individual components, then replace one or more parts of the original component and reassemble it. Not so today; most parts are electronic or have been manufactured in a way that the individual parts can't be taken apart. A good example of this is the HVAC systems. It used to be cables and levers that operated the doors and temperature flow. Nowadays, it’s sensors, drive motors and processors. Computers and these robotic functions have literally taken over our everyday life right down to the point of turning on the A/C in the car. You're not moving a lever or turning on the compressor, instead you’re asking permission from the computer. It determines whether or not all the required systems are functioning properly. If they are… then “it” (the computer) will allow you to have the air conditioning on. You don’t decide… the computer decides for you.
For the most part, today’s automotive repairs require a high degree of understanding of electronics, as well as mechanical aptitude. You really need both to be a good tech these days. The stereotypical view of the local mechanic as some brain damaged, misbegotten youth with a rag sticking out of his pocket is all but gone; he’s more of a brain surgeon than a grease monkey these days.
Our technical advancements and electronic world is moving closer and closer to a place our forefathers of just one generation ago would never recognize. It won’t be long before the automatous car is the norm (which is nothing more than a robot on wheels, imagine what they would think of those?)
These innovations are enough to give me brain damage if I ever get a chance to stop and think about them long enough. As it has always been in this field… change is constant and dealing with those changes is what the technician has to do.
I’ll admit I do find all these modern conveniences fascinating, as well as totally plausible…they make our lives physically and mentally less stressful, but I gotta draw the line somewhere. Some people like to bike, others like to hunt or fish, while my favorite pastime is golf. I do like using the GPS to show the yardage… but I’m not using a “Terminator” to hit the golf ball for me… Besides… it would probably keep score better than I do anyway. Even in this modern technical world there are still a few things this old, brain damaged tech would rather do without a computer involved.