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Ctrl-Alt-Del . . . When the computer crashes, what do you do?


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How many times have you been working on the computer when it suddenly locked up? Not one single key or command works, and the more you click the less it responds. The only thing left to do is hold down those three magic keys, “Ctrl-Alt-Del” or shut the whole thing off and restart the computer. Chances are you’ve just lost whatever it was you’ve been working on. (Been there, done that.)

Computers, they are a fact of life anymore. They’re everywhere and into everything. They have their problems, but at least there are ways of getting some things back up and running.

As far as cars, well they’ve had computers in them for years, decades actually. These days, with the advent of multiple computer systems crammed under the dash and hood, it was just a matter of time before communication between the modules was going to be an issue. The inevitable lock up of the cars computer is not too far off from what you experience with your personal laptop… almost that is.

This communication breakdown is usually because of some corrupted information being passed from one module to the next. How that corrupted information got in there is still a mystery to me. I’ve run across a few common issues, like changing a battery, loose battery clamps, jump starting another car, or when somebody buys some gizmo that plugs into the ALDL. Seen it, dealt with it, and had to find a way to solve these problems.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of reflashing the latest greatest software into one of the modules. Sometimes, the component is too far gone and a replacement module has to be installed, reprogrammed, and reconfigured. Ya just never know, or at least I don’t until I’m in there checking things out. Often times, I find a solution to the issues, but I’m still left with more questions, and the questions are sometimes more bizarre than the solution.

For instance, this 2013 Ford that came in with no radio, no A/C and the air bag light on. Not a single button or knob on the touch screen did anything at all, although you could change the volume and select limited stations from the steering wheel controls. Oh, and the A/C was stuck on MAX hot air with the blower on high speed. (Real nice when its 95 in the shop already. But it is what it is.)

Doing a full scan on the car led to 3 codes. One for the air bag, one for the radio, and one for the HVAC. Might as well start somewhere, the air bag seemed to me to be a good place. I looked up the definition of the code. U0422 “invalid serial data”, but the code description left me even more puzzled it read, “This is not a failure. This is only to report that the RCM received a missing or invalid message from another module.” So, what you’re telling me (talking to myself, as if I’m talking to the engineers that wrote the code description), is that the air bag is fine, but it’s tattle-telling on somebody else (one of the other modules), but you’re not going to tell me who. What’s that all about? I guess I’ll have to play a game of hide and seek with the other modules. This guy (the air bag module) ain’t helping at all.

Both the radio and the A/C had “U” codes stored for loss of communication. Well, like if that wasn’t a surprise. Nobody is talking to nobody, but the air bag knows something and he ain’t tellin’! Good grief, I thought codes were supposed to be a direction to a repair not a gossip line! Seeing how I’ve never run across this problem before, my thoughts were to read every line, every link, and every note on the two other “U” codes in the diagnostic and description pages, and see where this hide and seek game leads. Maybe, they’ll cough up some answers, not like that stingy air bag that seems to know, but ain’t tellin’.

After reading page after page of diagnostic information, which seemed to all start with, “Remove and check connections for powers and grounds”. (I was trying to ignore this. I mean come on, we’re in the computer age. We’ve got communication lines, use ‘em! Talk to each other, ya bunch of electrons!) After reading the umpteenth page, I think I found something that might be just that tid bit of information I needed to know. The sentence in the diagnostic tree read: “If none of the buttons work, disconnect the battery for 5 minutes, then re-attach the battery connections and re-start the vehicle. Within 10 seconds, touch any button on the FCIM, (Front Controls Integrated Module. A rather fancy name for the touch screen don’t ya think? Yea like, I’m going to ask the wife while we’re driving down the road, “Could you adjust the FCIM, it’s a bit chilly in here.”), after releasing the button, the FCIM will go into a re-calibration and initialization procedure. This may take a few minutes. If the buttons fail to work after this procedure, replace the FCIM.”

All I can say is this better work. I left the battery disconnected for the recommended 5 minutes then followed the rest of the directions in the diagnostic chart. The screen went blank and a computer progress bar appeared that slowly went from left to right. Then the message “Calibration complete” displayed. Low and behold, everything works again! Yippee! Even that tattle-telling air bag light is off! The wonders of modern computer technology! I cleared all the codes while I sat in the comfort of the cool breeze from the air conditioner pondering what just occurred. Unbelievable, who could have imagined such a complicated scenario of events in a car just a few decades ago. But a result is a result that ends with a happy customer (and me too) for doing nothing more than, “Ctrl-Alt-Del” automotive style.

Yep, I pretty much did the same thing I do with the laptop, just reboot and all the previous mishaps have vanished and forgotten about. The only thing is, I wish the info about “Ctrl-Alt-Del” would have been put on the first page of the diagnostics, and not buried amongst pages and pages of “rip this out, scan this, and check that”. Somebody needs to talk to that air bag module though! Nobody likes a tattle-taler, so quit that and just spill the beans, fella!

For an old timer like myself who’s been at this car repair thing for a long time, I often wonder what the next generation of mechanics are going to be up against when it comes to solving problems on future cars. They’ll still need those wrenches and screwdrivers that’s for sure, but they’ll also need even more knowledge on computers when wrenchin’ ain’t going to solve the problem.

Oh, how cars have changed. But, those weird problems still exist even in the modern automotive world. “Different, but the same”, is the way I like to say it. No wrenches needed, just a bit of computer geekdom, and an entirely different approach to solving problems.


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  • Have you checked out Joe's Latest Blog?

      It always amazes me when I hear about a technician who quits one repair shop to go work at another shop for less money. I know you have heard of this too, and you’ve probably asked yourself, “Can this be true? And Why?” The answer rests within the culture of the company. More specifically, the boss, manager, or a toxic work environment literally pushed the technician out the door.
      While money and benefits tend to attract people to a company, it won’t keep them there. When a technician begins to look over the fence for greener grass, that is usually a sign that something is wrong within the workplace. It also means that his or her heart is probably already gone. If the issue is not resolved, no amount of money will keep that technician for the long term. The heart is always the first to leave. The last thing that leaves is the technician’s toolbox.
      Shop owners: Focus more on employee retention than acquisition. This is not to say that you should not be constantly recruiting. You should. What it does means is that once you hire someone, your job isn’t over, that’s when it begins. Get to know your technicians. Build strong relationships. Have frequent one-on-ones. Engage in meaningful conversation. Find what truly motivates your technicians. You may be surprised that while money is a motivator, it’s usually not the prime motivator.
      One last thing; the cost of technician turnover can be financially devastating. It also affects shop morale. Do all you can to create a workplace where technicians feel they are respected, recognized, and know that their work contributes to the overall success of the company. This will lead to improved morale and team spirit. Remember, when you see a technician’s toolbox rolling out of the bay on its way to another shop, the heart was most likely gone long before that.
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