Diagnostics to go

Getting vehicles to perform their own diagnostic checks and then funneling that information to fleet and shop managers is perhaps the most revolutionary change going on in trucks today at the light- and medium-duty level. The technological capability to automatically perform diagnostics on the fly has been around for a while at this point. Heck, my 1999 Explorer SUV can tell me how much usable life

Getting vehicles to perform their own diagnostic checks and then funneling that information to fleet and shop managers is perhaps the most revolutionary change going on in trucks today at the light- and medium-duty level.

The technological capability to automatically perform “diagnostics on the fly” has been around for a while at this point. Heck, my 1999 Explorer SUV can tell me how much usable life remains in the engine oil and measure battery voltage — all at the touch of a button. Yet constructing a detailed maintenance report and e-mailing it automatically to me is still beyond its reach.

That's where diagnostics and telematics are converging. It's already in place and growing among light-duty vehicles and it's taking root quickly in the medium-duty world, too.

“We're trying to stress that telematics is not just a location tool for fleets,” says Kyle Howard, sales manager for International Truck & Engine Corp.'s Aware Vehicle Intelligence package.

“It's about collecting truck data like fault codes, diagnosing a potential problem without putting the truck in the shop to do it,” he told me. “It's also about collecting everyday information such as fuel consumption, engine idle time, total engine hours, and brake use patterns and giving it to shop technicians so they can make maintenance decisions without creating downtime for the truck.”

The best part is that no special software or hardware is required to tap into these data streams. It all gets funneled via wireless connections to the Internet. That's the beauty of these new telematics systems — simplicity.

It's also what's driving General Motors' own diagnostic offerings via its OnStar system, now built into almost every vehicle GM makes, from sedans to light trucks.

OnStar Vehicle Diagnostics is a comprehensive automatic checkup and report service that collects details on key operating systems — fuel, engine cooling, throttle control, transmission and, of course, engine oil life — about every 30 days, then compiles monthly reports and scheduled maintenance alerts that are e-mailed to customers.

It's all part of the basic OnStar cellphone subscriber package. OnStar Diagnostics is also connected to GM's Oil Life System, which calculates the percentage of oil life remaining based on engine type and temperature, driving conditions, air conditions, etc. This gives a fleet the opportunity to safely extend oil change intervals, thus reducing vehicle downtime, refocusing shop time, and saving money all around.

“This kind of capability is what we're aiming for in our medium trucks as well,” Ross Hendrix, marketing director for GM's fleet and commercial division, explained to me. Any fleet can use this kind of data to free up shop time, because you are now changing the vehicle's oil only when it needs it.”

It doesn't eliminate the need for regular maintenance checks, of course; brakes, the transmission, even the oil level still need to be checked. But it certainly tightens up the maintenance schedule to free up precious technician time for other duties.

The other big benefit comes on the road. If a vehicle develops a problem, an OnStar advisor can run GM Goodwrench On Demand Diagnostics and tell the driver if there's a serious problem, all while locating the nearest GM dealer and making a service appointment.

Hendrix told me that only GM's light trucks get the full OnStar package now.

“But we're moving down that road in medium-duty,” he stressed. “Though the electrical systems on a medium-duty truck are more complicated, that kind of on-the-fly diagnostic capability is really a no-brainer for fleets.”

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