In folklore tales of old, the “silver bullet” reigned supreme as the only form of ammunition capable of killing everything from werewolves to witches and various other monsters spat up from the dark recess of the human imagination. In the far more grounded-in-reality world of truck repair shops, however, the silver bullet serves as a euphemism for solutions to thorny problems, particularly for what's become a “holy grail” of sorts for truck technicians — a universal tool that can diagnose all makes and models of commercial vehicles.
“There are some new and improved systems out there that are universal tools targeted at the aftermarket such as the Cojali Jaltest tool, Noregon JPRO, Nexiq SmartLauncher and Nexiq iQ,” notes Chad Marti, fleet services manager for Clarke Power Services, a firm made up of 29 truck repair facilities located across nine states and a member of the WheelTime network. “They are all trying to be that ‘one-tool-fits-all-types’ system when it comes to maintaining Class 8 and medium-duty trucks. They all have a good start on that, but today there is no silver bullet yet that would cover anything and everything that your shop may need.”
David Shock, worldwide product manager for Snap-on Business Solutions and Nexiq Technologies, stresses that developing a true one-diagnostic-tool-for-all remains a primary goal for shop-focused firms like his, regardless of whether such a tool comes in the form of software or as an actual handheld device.
“Diagnostic software and hardware solutions continue to change as the commercial vehicle market continues to progress,” Shock explains. “The availability of information supplied by sensors throughout the vehicle enables diagnostic information to be sent via telemetric systems like those beginning to be offered by some OEM manufacturers.”
That means vehicle diagnostics can be conducted via PC-based software solutions, such as those favored by many large fleets, as well as the ubiquitous handheld scan tools used in a variety of shop settings to gather information, guide repairs and help conduct preventive maintenance.
“The PC enables software developed by OEMs or the aftermarket to be used with a vehicle interface. This solution, although expensive, has a high rate of return on the initial investment as the facility has the ability to complete repairs beyond preventive maintenance repairs,” Shock says, noting that the PC provides the technician more detailed information.
However, handheld scan tools provide technicians with a simple-to-use product that requires a reduced amount of training, often containing licensed software from the OEM.
“The scan tool is a less expensive point of entry, and product choices provide for both low-end and high-end solutions,” Shock points out. “The lower-end scan tools in the market are used for information and triage. The higher-end scan tool provides a reduced amount of information than that of the PC, but provides good information for repair. The choice of product is truly up to the fleet or aftermarket repair facility.”
“Systems from companies like Noregon and Nexiq will allow you to do that and actually use their program to do the basic diagnostics,” adds Clarke's Marti. “If you need to go more in depth or they don't have coverage for a certain vehicle, they will incorporate that OEM's software into their portal. In doing that, however, it defeats the purpose of having a universal diagnostic tool [for] you still have to purchase and install the OEM program with these tools.”
Marti also thinks universal tools won't replace OE diagnostic software completely, at least not in the near future. “The universal tools are going to fall short when you get into some of the really in-depth troubleshooting and diagnostics,” he believes.
Dave Reed, a fleet management consultant with Arsenault Associates, agrees with Marti. “We are obsessed with being ahead of the knowledge curve with ‘pre-event’ information, with knowing about things like low oil and tire pressure before they happen,” he explains. “This is what's driving the proprietary tools by the OEMs. Each OEM has developed [its] software around its engine and major component technology. Obviously, this creates an environment where the one-tool-fits-all concept will not work.”
It's also an issue that's not as cut and dried as it seems, Reed stresses. “The diagnostic tools being unique to each OEM is not the main issue; the issue is that OEMs have created business plans that force the customer to either send their trucks back to them for repairs or buy very expensive OEM software diagnostic tools, along with additional costs for upgrades,” he explains.
He notes that there is no standardization of tire sizes, light bulbs, mirrors, wiring harnesses, seats or even the wrench size used to maintain today's trucks, either — another reason why so many different diagnostic tools and software packages exist.
“That's why technicians have to purchase a $15,000 tool box to hold all of those different tools,” Reed says. “Trucking's future, and certainly its history, is surrounded by versatility. With all of the different versions of engines, combinations of drivetrains, and everyday new developments, the OEMs have to be able to function within their environment rather than being restricted to some ‘standard.’”
Yet the real issues remain the cost and ultimate control over the diagnostic tools used in the truck repair world.
“In our case, we are focusing on automated data collection and instantaneous reporting of critical information directly to management and technicians via on-screen notifications, phone and email,” Reed says.
“Thus a key goal for us is to have our software capable of integrating with any OEM, monitoring all systems and fault codes, feeding those fault codes to the technician already deciphered, and displaying a schematic of the problem area with in-depth details for repairs,” he explains. “A repair order could automatically be opened, ready for time and repairs to be recorded and completed.”
Greg Reimmuth, vice president-sales & marketing for Noregon Systems, believes that even OEMs would like to see some form of universal tool developed.
“OEMs will continue to push the proprietary tools and implement tactics that perpetuate that dependence on the dealer,” he says, with OEMs continuing to implement encryption codes to unlock proprietary data and bi-directional electronic controls on the vehicle. “But obviously, with all of this fragmentation [different engines, drivetrain, etc.] today, even the OEM dealers are looking for a one-tool-fits-all approach. Unfortunately, it does not exist today. And with the complexity of heavy trucks becoming more prevalent with ever-changing emissions and mileage mandates, the standard serial component diagnostic routines are becoming a thing of the past.”
As a result, a triage approach to total vehicle diagnostic routines is becoming the norm, something that may help the industry go further down the one-tool path over time.
“With the advent of our medium-duty coverage modules, those fleets operating half-ton trucks through Class 8 vehicles now have a solution that works on one hardware platform, which is unprecedented,” says Reimmuth.
Clarke's Marti notes, though, that the trick going forward will be to somehow merge together the capabilities of software packages and scan tools into one tool.
“Some of the handheld devices are good for quick checks, but they fall short on the diagnosis side. It is one thing to extract the codes, but it's another to start the troubleshooting process within the tool,” he explains.
For instance, Marti says a scan tool may show that your ‘check engine’ light is on due to a fuel pump circuit code, but that doesn't necessarily mean the fuel pump itself is bad.
“Even though [technicians] may be able to extract the code and tell you what the code is, you still have to troubleshoot and diagnose it,” he continues. “PC tools allow you to go into the diagnostics deeper and more thoroughly. In many cases, the PC-based software packages give you troubleshooting information as well as wiring schematics and things like that.”
And if a fleet is using different makes, models, and classes of trucks, those issues only deepen, Marti points out.
In the end, fleets will need to deal with the complex and diverse array of diagnostic tools to keep their vehicles up and running — whether they like it or not.