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Dream Cars: Self-Diagnostic Cars

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Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Dream Cars: Self-Diagnostic Cars

Bill Crittenden
July 23, 2013


Now, I don't mean to claim credit for anything, because there is a huge difference between daydreaming and building something, but I was thinking of in-car dashboard navigation systems in the late 1990's.

Of course, in the era before GPS was accurate to the general public, I imagined a system that used a little ATM- like screen & side button setup and delivered static maps onscreen via one of the available CD-ROM based map programs available at the time. Basically, building a computer capable of running this map program into the dashboard.

As long as the computer was there and available, and as I was beginning to experiment at the time with compressing and storing my music collection digitally on my computer's hard drive, I had imagined a music player interface similar to what dashboard MP3 players use today.

Oh, but I was a big Star Trek nerd and among my big ideas was a full self-diagnostic system.

In addition to maps and music being digitized and broadcast into car dashboards, as well as the capabilities of the modern tablet computer (another bit of Star Trek come to life), I think it's past time for a car to have self-diagnostics.

Currently, cars receive sensor input signals and if one or more are outside a specified range the Service Engine Soon or Check Engine lights activate. If the car determines over the course of driving that the malfunction has not returned during a set cycle of events, the light goes off.

When the car is taken to the dealership, a computer is plugged into the car and reads the error codes, translates them into messages, and reads available data from the car to help the technician diagnose the problem.

Why does one need to plug a very expensive computer into a car's very expensive computer to find out what's wrong? Why is it, in an era of significant computer power being handheld that the car's computer can't tell you exactly what the problem is, recommend a course of action (drive to the dealership or get off the road immediately for a tow to the dealership), and offer the technician or technically capable owner both the car's data and instructions on how to repair the vehicle?

Basically, going back to Star Trek a bit, say my car's oxygen sensor goes bad. The Check Engine light comes on. I call up a diagnostic screen, and the car tells me the oxygen sensor is supposed to read between X and Y volts, and it is currently reading N volts. The car tells me that it is in emissions safe mode, but safe to drive. A Level 3 diagnostic cycle, where the computer controls the car through a diagnostic cycle that checks all of the drivetrain mechanical components while parked, confirms that the oxygen sensor is the only problem, and that the oxygen sensor readings are most likely not caused by an actual engine failure.

Knowing how to make basic repairs myself, I can buy the part and call up the appropriate page in the shop service manual from the dashboard computer to find out how to replace it. Since the car is out of warranty, I do that. A quick Level 2 diagnostic confirms that the replacement corrected the issue, and the Check Engine light goes off. The event is logged in the vehicle's onboard service records.

Should the car be completely inoperative, an app could be made available for an iPad that walks an owner through basic troubleshooting.

Data recording features can be used by parents to monitor their children's driving. Ford's MyKey already has a system that limits a car's capabilities when the child's key is use to start the vehicle. Integrating a dashboard camera for teenagers and adults alike should be as easy as integrating a camera into a smartphone.

For the full U.S.S. Enterprise experience, integrating a verbal interface such as Apple's Siri would let you verbally ask your car what is wrong with it, and get a simple verbal response.

Considering that Nissan's GT-R has a very capable dashboard data system for reading through sensor data, and some Cadillacs have been sold with iPads as owners manuals, we know the engineers are working (and playing) with the technology, which now 15 years after my original daydreams are still showing me new capabilities I hadn't imagined with 1990's computer technology.

So the technology to do all of this exists, if someone wish actual engineering knowledge would just put the effort into integrating it. But they haven't. Why not?

I think the reasons we won't see such technology in our dashboards any time soon are the needs of dealerships to have a profitable service department and the liability that may be involved in giving certain folks who can barely drive in a straight line the instructions to disassemble their car.



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