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Getting Smarter About Maintenance

We're in the middle of an electronic revolution in regards to your car's maintenance. A few decades ago everything in your car was mechanical; today, multiple systems are controlled and monitored electronically. In fact, today's cars contain all manner of electronic sensors to monitor performance and alert you when something goes wrong.

But there is still much progress to be made.

Today, all the data collected by a car's electronic sensors is fed to a central communications module, which stores the data for appropriate future use. If sensors detect something is amiss, the communications module alerts the driver, typically via the extremely vague Check Engine light. When the driver takes the car in for service, the service technician can then extract a diagnostic code from the car computer to find out what's wrong and then fix it.

This may sound advanced, at least compared to the manual carburetor days, but it's really quite primitive. Your car's onboard computer doesn't actually diagnose anything (and certainly doesn't fix anything itself), it merely stores the error codes reported by other sensors in the car. All the service technician sees is a list of simple numeric codes, which he then has to look up to see what they mean. It's better than getting no diagnostic help at all, but there's a way to go before these diagnostics can be considered in any way intelligent.

All of this is in the process of changing; automotive diagnostics will become easier because the car's electronics will be even smarter. Instead of generating indecipherable error codes, your car's in-board computer will display plain-English explanations of what's wrong. Your car's dumb warning lights will get smarter, too. Instead of displaying a single "low tire pressure" light (and leaving you to figure out which of the four tires needs air -- a time consuming job), the in-dash display will tell you that the driver's side front tire is five pounds low. That's a simple thing that will make your life immeasurably easier.

Similar improvements will be made to everybody's least favorite dashboard alert, the Check Engine light. Today, nobody knows what it means when this light goes on; it could be nothing, it could be something extremely serious, you just don't know until you take it into the dealer. Smart systems will do away with this overly generic warning and instead use the in-dash display to tell you precisely what is wrong -- and what you should do about it.

Figure 3 Today's ubiquitous Check Engine light -- not very smart. (By Wikiuser100000, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Ideally, smart diagnostics systems will identify potential problems before they become real problems -- oil levels getting low, belts wearing out, that sort of thing. And the computer won't just tell you about the problem, it will take advantage of available wireless technologies (Wi-Fi if you're near a hotspot, cellular if you're not) to notify the repair center of the problem. The repair center will then order the necessary parts and get with you to schedule an appointment to perform the repairs.

Less guesswork, more automation. That's the way diagnostics will work in the smart cars of the future.

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