The electronic 'smart car' isn't coming -- it's here

The driver gets into her car and switches on the ignition. A "check engine" light glows on the instrument panel and catches her attention. So she drives straight to a service center.

A mechanic, using a special tool, "interrogates" the car's electronic control module, or ECM -- a small computer located in the passenger compartment. A coded number lights up on the instrument panel's digital display, indicating the malfunction.

The mechanic checks a service manual that spells out a procedure for corrective action. After the job is done, the ECM reports whether or not the repair was done properly.

You think that may happen in 1990? Wrong. It's happening right now.

ECM on 1981-model cars is monitoring the engine control system and memorizing malfunctions, alerting the driver via a check-engine light, and even helping to keep the car running until repairs are made.

With smart cars such as these, it might seem the day of the service-free vehicle is well on the way. But not so. While the day of the grease-pit tinkerer may be fading, the arrival of black-box technology is ushering in a number of ultrasophisticated systems -- engine, transmission, ignition, fuel, hydraulics, braking, steering, entertainment -- that require advanced diagnostic equipment and service tools.

Indeed, how well auto manufacturers and dealers cope with the challenge of high-technology service could determine who survives and who doesn't in the years ahead.

About 18 months ago, General Motors started sending out monthly questionnaires to customers who had owned GM products for more than a year. The questionnaires ask about many areas of dealer performance. The company now has a computer file of customer satisfaction performance on 2,000 of its largest dealers.

F. James McDonald, GM president, asserts: "The biggest single reason for customer dissatisfaction is 'comebacks' -- the need to go back to the dealer twice, three times, or even more often to fix the same problem."

Customer satisfaction, along with quality and cost competitiveness, is something Detroit knows it must improve. If it doesn't, warns Mr. McDonald, the domestic industry "goes down the drain. . . . Those of us in the industry must understand that."

In attacking the problem, auto companies know they must design and build better quality into their products as well as develop better diagnostic systems to help service technicians find and fix the problem the first time. The investment cost is high. Predicasts Inc., a market research firm, predicts sales of automotive electronic test equipment alone will grow from $160 million in 1976 to $650 million by 1990, with diagnostic testers as well as engine and emission analyzers paving the way.

The 1990 outlay, it is forecast, will include $65 million in auto plants and

The cost and quality of auto repairs have irked motorists for years.

In a 1978 report the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated consumer losses related to auto repair at some $20 billion a year.

NHTSA estimated that more than half of that loss results from incompetent, unnecessary, or fraudulent repairs. The rest, it was calculated, stems from lack of serviceability in automobile designs, premature scrappage of vehicles, motor-vehicle accidents, pollution, and wasted fuel.

Service success depends on more than equipment, according to a new study conducted for NHTSA by Booz Allen & Hamilton Inc., a management and technology consulting firm. Findings indicate the individual with whom the customer has contact, the percentage of certified mechanics at a facility, and the cost of repairs are the most important factors in a motorist's deciding whether or not to return for future work.

"Ironically," says William Magro of Booz Allen, "the types of repair facilities likely to benefit most from increasing auto complexity (such as dealers, mass mechandizers, and specialty shops) are receiving lower consumer ratings than service stations and independent garages."

The study also identified major concerns of owners and operators of repair facilities. Those most frequently cited were "finding skilled mechanics or technicians" and "improving customer relations."

According to Booz Allen, based on information obtained from industry surveys, there were 427,000 auto mechanics in the US in 1978. Dealerships were found to maintain the most highly skilled pool of mechanics, followed in order by independent garages, service stations, specialty shops, and mass merchandisers.

Service skills will not only have to become more widespread in the future. They may also have to change as vehicles change. Future vehicles will make greater use of electronics, diesel and turbocharged engines, new transmissions, lightweight materials, and a host of advanced technologies.

Many of the new technologies will require mechanics to attain considerable new knowledge to diagnose and repair these systems. That's why wizards, such as the electronic control module, are emerging, heralding fundamen tal changes in the nation's automotive repair industry.

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