Party Line

Every once in a while I’ll get a car in that just doesn’t
follow the normal procedure for reflashing or
reprogramming.  GM products seemed to be the most
common ones to do this, but I’ve had it happen on other
cars as well. Say you’re about to install a new PCM, and
you have to download the new software into it. 
After you get the software loaded onto the scanner,
you start to transfer the information, and when you
get about half way through the procedure the screen
freezes and says, “Download incomplete” or
“Download failed”. The usual cause is one or more of
the other modules on the communication line are trying
to communicate while the scanner is sending the new

When this happens… and it does happen quite a
few times, I have to find the splice pack where all the
communication lines are, and disconnect it.  Then using
a scope (wiring diagram isn’t much help because all
the comm. lines are usually the same color on the splice)
find the exact lead that goes to the module that I’m
trying to program, and jump that one… and only that one…
to the ALDL.  Then start the whole procedure over again.
It’s my way of telling the rest of the modules to shut up… politely.

It’s like the old telephone party lines.  (If you’re old enough to remember those.)  Basically, several homes were on the same pair of wires, and each house had its own distinctive ring.  If you wanted to make a call, you had to pick up the receiver and check to make sure nobody else was on the phone.  If someone was, you politely excused yourself, and tried again later.  (Of course there was always that nosey neighbor who would listen in on other people’s calls.)

That’s pretty much what it’s like trying to program some of these cars these days.  Too many different systems are trying to talk all at the same time, and when that happens… nothing gets done.  But, if you can isolate it down to one module, or somehow tell all the other modules to behave themselves for just a bit, then the new information can make it where it needs to go without any “Download has failed” across the screen.

It’s bad enough to deal with the “party line” issues when I’m out in the shop trying to get a new program installed, it’s quite a different thing when it’s at the front counter or on the phone.  It doesn’t work as well to tell the background chatter to “shut up” when you have two or more people trying to explain their car to you all at the same time. Having to maintain that professional image while they are all try to engage in a meaningful conversation with you is quite trying.  Seriously, sometimes I wish I could just shut them up…politely.

The other day I had a car dropped off that turned into the party line from the twilight zone.  There was no way to avoid the confrontation in the front office on this one.  In walks the whole entire family, dad, the wife, the two kids, the dog, and somebody who happened to be tagging along (I think he was the neighbor) with the rest of this ensemble.

“What can I do for you?” I asked…. Needless to say I didn’t address my greetings to just one person, but to the group in general.

At that moment the husband, the wife, one of the kids, and their extra person, (the other kid kept the dog occupied.) commenced to speak all at the same time, all in rather loud voices, and they all had different things to say.  When one would hesitate, the other would jump in even louder than before, then the other one was speaking over the first one again.  It was a free for all of random car problems, and not one of them was giving an inch as to who was going to speak first about the car. It kept getting louder and more confusing as they went on.

“Hold on a second,” I said, louder than normal, “One at a time, I can’t answer all of your questions at the same time! Let’s have one person explains things; the rest of you please keep quiet… I’ll get to you all in a minute.”

Now it’s like some old vaudeville act in the lobby, one person turns to the other, “Oh I’m so sorry, you go ahead.” …. “No, no… you first”….”No really, you should tell him.”… “You drive the car more … you should be the one to tell him.” … “Oh no, you should tell him.”…  (The kid jumps into the act), “I saw it do it, Mom.  I can tell him!” … then the neighbor, “It happened to me the other day when I borrowed the car. I just don’t want to get blamed for it messing up, but you should tell him, it’s your car.”

Everyone was apologizing to the other, you tell him-no you tell him-no that’s perfectly alright… you tell him. This went on for so long I was waiting for the giant hook to come from stage left and end this show.   I suppose in some small way I must have been part of this comedy act, and I’m the guy who has to straighten this whole mess out, time to say something, “I don’t care who tells me… but somebody tell me what’s going on here!”

It still took a few more apologizes to finally get the mom to begin to tell me about the car.  I swear… I’ve had less trouble isolating a communication line on the scanner.  But, with a room full of people I couldn’t just scope out which one had the right info or not. I’m out of my element.  (This is definitely not part of my training.)     Unbelievable… and what a party this has turned out to be…!

Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t install hidden cameras in the front lobby for just these sorts of things.  Put it on YouTube or something.  Hilarious stuff.  As a technician/mechanic I’m pretty capable of dealing with the frustrating party line chatter on the communication line in the car, but this… this is way too much vaudeville for me. 

Well, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.  Repairing cars is what keeps the shop in the black, and at times dealing with the owner is more of a challenge than making the repairs.  Maybe I’ll eventually laugh about all of this, but until then I’ll just keep at it working on improving my communication with the scanners…. and those occasional vaudeville entertainers.  Ring, ring, ring… it’s the phone… … hold that thought… there’s another party on the line… here we go again. 

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