Spanner or Scanner?

By Mr Bill Collyer

Spanner or Scanner?

Most 4WD owners will know by now that modern 4WDs are in reality a complex software problem. You will also know that most “faults” these days are sensor faults, that is, entirely vehicle psychosomatic and not real. So where once we got out the tool kit we now get out the OBD2 scanner. A bit of history will help.

The first dabbling was ABS becoming traction control – and it just got more and more technical. The early 4WD systems were largely pioneered  in Europe and were predominantly Land Rover. For nearly 20 years Land Rover have had full time 4WD married to complex software and the ABS system. The early traction control and hill descent controls were rather crude and a bit slow, a far cry from today. Lan Rover went much further and much quicker than the competing marques, resulting in a number of patent infringement law suits as VW, Mercedes and Toyota “copied” (read stole) the software systems. The terrain selected software enabled the vehicle to select not only the speed and degree of braking on each wheel but also controlled throttle response (mapping) and the amount of throttle applied.

These law suits have largely been settled, not only does VW use software to cheat on its emission testing but it also steals it when it feels like it! The final cost to companies like VW and Toyota is unknown but it was not cheap!

Interestingly Toyota (and other Japanese brands) have always prided themselves on reliability achieved at least in part by using “simple” technology. Toyota have proudly stuck to their motto “Yesterdays technology today!”, and Nissan and Mitsubishi have followed. Because the Japanese cars have adopted a “do not touch it if it breaks” policy, we see a Toyota Hilux being tilt trayed to the workshop for a fan belt replacement. You could replace the fan belt yourself easily BUT the car still will not start since the fault has to be cleared and the software reset.

Mind you before you start feeling smug in your retro engineered Jeep or Ranger have a look at the suspension and estimate how long your kidneys will hold out – and the only sensor you have there is pain. While you are at it have a look under the bonnet of your Ranger at that 5 cyclinder diesel; if you ever owned a TD5 (Land Rover) you will recognize it.

Now Audi and Mercedes may have the answer, their cars communicate directly with the central brain via a satellite link when the car detects a fault. The central brain decides the appropriate course of action which may simply be to check it at the next service. Or of course it may send you a signal – like the one I received in my first experience some years ago. There I was some 300 kms north of Cooktown in my boat with a brand new fully computerized 200 hp outboard, suddenly the boat goes into limp mode. I turn it off and restart but in a couple of minutes it once more goes into limp mode. Now I did not have a scanner for this brand new engine (my first mistake) so I used the self-diagnosis function to tell me what the problem was. I relay the message to you verbatim,

“Vibration sensor out of bounds error. Proceed immediately to the nearest Dealer at less than 5 knots.” At that speed it would have taken me three days just to get back to Cooktown and then I would have to trail it to the nearest dealer in Cairns.

The solution? Ring my friendly dealer in Brisbane on the sat phone and ask him where the sensor was – then I disconnected it and all was well. That was my first taste of this new world

So I am suggesting that when you get an equivalent message in the Simpson or the Ommbulgarri Track, is not at all reassuring. All brands, including Land Rover, are very reluctant to give ‘amateurs’ access to their technology. However there are now sufficient after market sources to get the software for all vehicles, and fortunately the OBD2 protocols are the same for all vehicles. This means you can buy a complete scanner (plugs into the OBD port) for a few hundred dollars and this will cover many of the more common problems. More importantly it will tell you what the problems are. It may even allow you to clear the faults and thus get the vehicle out of limp mode.

For those who are more computer literate you can buy software to suit your vehicle and load it onto your Iphone or Tablet, add an OBD2 reader and your are away. (You may have to buy a dongle for your vehicle which may be expensive compared to a simple OBD2 reader which will cost about $50).

For Land Rover top of the line software will cost more than $5000, I selected a $1500 variant which to date has been good. I should point out that I have NEVER put the diagnostic equipment on any Land Rover and had NO faults show up. Land Rover has 3 levels of fault, minor which never show up on the dash, warning faults which show up as orange lights and require attention, and serious faults which show up as red warnings and may also trigger the car going into limp mode (follow me home mode). Most vehicles have similar variations on this theme, many follow the example of the ETEC outboard above and simply go into limp mode and throw up the message “Go to your nearest XYZ dealer”. Others are even less forgiving and simply shut down and display the message ‘Contact your dealer”.

Probably what they mean is contact your drug dealer so that you can buy a good dose of your favourite opiate to steady your nerves.

You have probably already purchased software to suit your car and may even have (gingerly) tried to use it. You are faced with two choices, ignore the technology and drive OR try and get on top of the technology so that you can drive. For those who like to visit remote areas, and there are still plenty in Australia, you may have no choice but to learn some familiarity with the technology. As I noted at the start virtually all faults are sensor faults and do not in any way impact on the vehicles performance, so at the very least your OBD2 reader will let you drive home without suffering numerous panic attacks.

So the answer is – Scanner not Spanner is the first tool!