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Understanding In-Vehicle Technology

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I’m new to this magazine. It’s a pleasure and an honor to have become part of such a fine industry publication with a great staff.

I’ve been in the industry for a long time—22 years between two dealerships, mostly as a body shop manager. I spent 16 years between two independent collision repair businesses, mostly as a president. (Hopefully that means I have more than the ability to avoid being fired!)

I have many years of industry volunteer service including as Automotive Service Association (ASA) chairman and serving on many committees and advisory councils. The industry is my home and I am passionate about it, while driven to contribute to its improvement. Currently, I am president of operations for LaMettry’s Collision, a multi-shop operation (MSO) in the Twin Cities. That means that with our leadership team, I interact with technicians, estimators, other shop staff, customers, vendors, and insurers on a nearly daily basis. As I look upon my career, I consider myself to be blessed far beyond my expectations and I am not yet done.

I’d like to start this new column looking at a topic from this month’s issue—the new vehicle electronic technologies relevant to collision repair. I firmly believe this is one of the greatest issues driving change in our current era. The wave of shop consolidation is big. Changing shop processes, lean, cycle time improvement, OE shop certification, aluminum and other new substrates are all making our shops look and behave differently than in the past. Among the reasons I consider electronics to be such a large issue is that our industry is woefully behind in understanding and addressing these sophisticated systems. The potential consequences of improperly operating systems can be catastrophic.

I’ve heard statements at industry events such as, “many new vehicles transfer more data than commercial airplanes” and “auto manufacturers are now among the leading electronic technology companies.” Some vehicles can have as many as 80 computer modules. They communicate with each other in monitoring and controlling thousands of functions, many of which are safety related. Some monitor or talk to other vehicles, the manufacturer, or more. Congress, and some state legislations, are currently working on regulations that will control who owns vehicle data and who can access it. Our ability to repair vehicles will be impacted. There is even a fear that these systems could be abused by terrorists. Can you imagine the consequences of someone simultaneously shutting off all vehicles of a particular brand in a city like Washington, D.C., during rush hour?

An often-discussed topic in our industry is the calibration of right front-seat sensors on many vehicles including late model Hondas and Toyotas. For some models, the manufacturer has specified that the sensors should be calibrated after a collision. Some of these models go back 10 or more years. Yet, I know from discussions with many other shop operators and insurers that many, probably most, shops have not been performing the calibration. The sensors inform the airbag module of the mass in the seat. The module uses the information to decide what systems—including gas-charged seat belts as well as primary and secondary air bags—to deploy. Improperly calibrated seat sensors could prevent a deployment or deploy a system contrary to the system’s design. The risk is personal injury or worse. This is only one example of the need to understand and repair these sophisticated electronic systems.

As repairers, it is up to us to educate ourselves. First off, understand the difference in terms. “Fault codes” are codes stored in modules that indicate an event took place, usually of potential negative consequence, within the electronic system. “Clearing codes” just means that these codes have been erased. It doesn’t mean that the source of the code has been fixed. “Initialization” is the introduction of a sensor to the module allowing them to communicate. “Calibration” is the adjustment of (typically) a sensor so that it provides accurate data. I often see the phrase “scan and clear codes” on estimates. I think some have the impression that an electronic box is connected to the car, codes are removed, and everything is good to go. That is not necessarily the case! Also understand that there are thousands of potential codes and only a few dash indicators lights. It is a fallacy on newer vehicles that if there are no dash lights, all systems are functioning properly and are safe.

Many industry experts recommend scanning vehicle systems for fault codes before and after each collision repair. After attending some I-CAR classes and reading many articles on the topic I am inclined to agree. Yet I know from personal experience that many insurers are reluctant to embrace the idea due to the increase in repair cost. I’ve heard a lot of the old phrase, “you’re the only one charging for this”.

Again from past experience, I know our industry can be slow to change. It typically comes in the form of an evolution rather than a revolution. As repairers it’s up to us to do the right thing, performing a complete and proper repair. There will be a lot more to come on this topic.

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