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Article: Back In The Future - mechanics need a lot more than a LIKE to do this job

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Back in the Future

Who remembers carburetors? Or, the first years of fuel injection systems? How about the first cars with computers in them? They all seem old news these days. In fact, the modern car has far surpassed those early attempts of bringing the family car into the future of modern electronics. Back then, it was futuristic, stupendous, and more than a little intimidating to the old school mechanics of the time. That’s where advanced training brought everyone up to speed.

I’ve been around long enough to see all these changes, and have had to adapt my personal “expertise” to those ever changing systems just to stay up with what the customers are bringing in for repairs. As one customer told me, “It’s like going back in the future of old car technology when you work on those older models.” I’d have to agree. Working on those early systems takes an entirely different diagnostic approach than the modern car.

Today’s cars require a lot more diagnostic time and varied equipment to perform some of the basic and essential tasks that a few tweaks of wrench used to do. For example: “Cam to Crank correlation” or “Passenger presence reset” never existed years ago. But, now it’s as common place to program or calibrate engine and/or body components as it was to adjust the idle on a carburetor. These calibrations or programming issues can either be in regards to getting the car to run correctly, or to get a system such as the air bags to operate without having that silly service light glowing back at ya.

Even with all these modern tools, techniques, and scanners there are still things that happen because of some previous work improperly done. The difference is how the computers in the modern car interpret those incorrect parts or faulty workmanship. In the past, without computers getting in the way, things either worked or they didn’t, but now the communication between the different control modules can lead to entirely different circumstances than I think the engineers could have ever anticipated. Sometimes a signal blocks the entire data stream and the car won’t start or multiple systems won’t work. Other times it’s a battery drain brought on by plugging the wrong connector into the wrong socket.

In years past I’ve had cars come in from body shops, or off the street right after a customer bought it, and a different rear hatch or door was installed. Now something related to that hatch or door isn’t working. Could be the brake lights, or a power window, or anything else connected to the replacement piece. 9 chances out of 10 the door or hatch fits perfectly, painted perfectly, and closes or opens just like it’s supposed to. But, the wiring harness in the door is different. It’s usually a part off a different year or a vehicle equipped with a different option package.

The last one was a ‘06 Chevy 3500 with the wrong door on the d. side. The customer didn’t bring it in because the door was wrong, he brought it in because the battery kept going dead overnight. The problem was the door wiring. It had an earlier model door on it, but whoever installed and painted the door made the assumption since the door connected to the service box all was good. Not a chance. The power window would work, but the wiring and terminal positions for the door ajar and door speaker were completely different. Thus, the BCM never saw a signal that the door was ever opened. This left the radio on, and worse yet, there was a crossed up signal through the speaker wiring, causing the BCM to never allow the system to go into its sleep mode.

Now, that same kind of problem wouldn’t have happened on a truck 10 or 20 years older. They didn’t use a computer to determine the door position, just a jam switch. But, ya can’t dwell on the way it was done in the past; ya gotta get back in the future with the scanner to check these systems. These older models are nothing like today’s models. Needless to say, today’s mechanic (and bodyshop techs) have to be more aware of the complexities of the various systems, and not assume it’s correct, “Cause it fits”.

The modern vehicle is more computer than ever before. Now with the hybrids and full electric vehicles getting more and more popular, I’m sure there will be many issues for modern technicians to deal with. And, let’s not forget about the autonomous car. Just wait until they’re in the mainstream of the repair shop and body shops.

The days of the stereotypical high school dropout who starts pumping gas and eventually starts turning wrenches is all but a memory. The job and the qualification for the modern mechanic is more of a college graduate with a PHD than the stereotypical grease monkey. Times are changing, and so are the challenges in the automotive repair industry. It takes a lot more than wrenches and hanging parts to fix these modern cars.


Whenever I’m asked by someone whether or not their son or daughter should take up the trade of auto repair I tell them, “Absolutely, if they like cars that’s even better, but liking cars and working on them are two different subjects entirely.” What I find is most start up mechanics are basing their skill levels on cars from years past. Most of which the paying customers who come into today’s repair shops have long given up on trying to keep them on the road, and have purchased those cars with newer technologies in them. I commend anybody who likes working on cars and has had experience on the older models, but if you really want to be a modern mechanic... ya need to get back in the future.

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Edited by skm
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