By Jim Kerr

Ford shared a tidbit of information with us the other day that may sound incredible: there is more computer memory in the microchip that prevents the CD player in your vehicle from skipping than there was on the original Apollo space rocket. And that is just one small part of the automobile.

Just like home computers that have become faster and have more capabilities, so have vehicle computers become faster and can do more complex diagnostics. Just over a decade ago, engine computers were stretching their limits to provide accurate fuel control for an engine operating over 3000 rpm. Now, the computers can accurately control fuel, timing and many other operations such as variable valve timing way past the vehicle’s redline, which may be 7000 rpm or higher.

Not only can they provide control, they can also monitor and substitute data readings for inputs that may be working improperly. For example, most gasoline-powered vehicles have mass airflow sensors, a device that measures the mass of air entering the engine. Once the computer knows the mass of air, it can inject the proper amount of fuel to provide
maximum performance, economy and least emissions. However, if that sensor should start to deliver incorrect readings for some reason, the computer uses all its other sensor inputs to calculate a substitute mass airflow reading and your vehicle continues to drive normally.

Engine coolant temperature is another example of inputs that can be substituted. By using air intake temperature at start up and measuring the engine run time, the computer can calculate the temperature of the engine. If this disagrees with the temperature sensor readings, then a trouble code will be set but the vehicle still drives normally.

This processing capability is not limited to engine computers. I was just looking at how the transmission computer for GM’s new six-speed rear-wheel drive automatic transmission monitors shifting. For a fraction of a second (and we are talking of hundredths of a second) at the start of each shift, the computer monitors pressure switches and uses hydraulic pressure to rapidly move the shift valves back and forth. Once the computer sees the correct inputs from the pressure switches indicating that the shift valves can actually move, it completes the shift. All this takes place in a blink of an eye.

Why use such complex diagnostics? First of all, if the computer diagnostics determine that a condition exists that could damage the transmission because of a shift, it will prevent that shift from occurring. It is in a self-protection mode and even the roughest driver would find it difficult to harm the transmission while driving –
assuming they are not driving over rock piles! Secondly, the data provided by the transmission computer enables a technician to pinpoint the area where a transmission fault has occurred before it is ever removed from the vehicle.

That brings me to the question – who is fixing your vehicle? The Canadian automotive repair and service industry employs more than 250,000 workers to service more than 16 million cars and trucks on our roads. Vehicle complexity and changing technologies combined with the number of older technicians retiring has created a shortage of workers in the industry. Analysis shows an industry shortage of between 40,000 to 70,000 workers in the coming decade and the booming economy is making that shortage come faster as skilled technicians are lured by the big dollars available in oil sectors. Western Canada is experiencing this right now, with some smaller shops closing because there are no technicians available. I predict eastern Canada will experience this impact soon.

This represents an excellent opportunity for young people who want to work on automobiles, but it represents a challenge for auto companies and consumers. We may spend a lot of time researching which is the best vehicle to buy, but take little time to find the best technician to repair our vehicle. Finding a good technician can take time. It takes a lot of training and some experience so a technician can diagnose complex vehicle systems accurately and quickly. The image of the “grease monkey” working on your car hasn’t applied for a long time. Technicians fixing today’s cars have a vast amount of high tech knowledge and skills that few drivers understand. It isn’t rocket science – it’s more!

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