WHEN United States automakers harnessed the computer to the internal combustion engine in 1976, they promised the world automobiles with cleaner burning engines, better gas mileage, and smoother performance. These microprocessors, they predicted, could even lead a mechanic to the source of a problem. "Sounded too good to be true," recalls Ike Williams, service manager for Krug Lincoln-Mercury in Dearborn. And it was - until 40 Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealerships received the early release of a new generation of diagnostic equipment from Ford Motor Company.
Before this electronic toolbox, with its guided diagnostics and on-line service information, began arriving at dealerships like Krug, service technicians across the US struggled to maintain all the computer technology that Big Three automakers were placing in their automobiles.
"Fifteen years ago, service technicians could inspect a carburetor for a clogged fuel jet," Williams says. "Today, with electronic fuel injection a standard feature on US-made cars, there is no carburetor for them to inspect.
"How can a technician spot a short circuit on a microprocessor?" he asks.
Ford's parts and service division answered that question when it delivered Job One - a Service Bay Diagnostic System (SBDS), to Krug Lincoln-Mercury last summer. Ford plans to ship an additional 2,000 SBDS carts to Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealerships this spring.
"SBDS signals a major change in the vehicle repair process," says Lee Miskowski, vice president and general manager of Ford parts and service.
"Come-back repairs have plagued our industry," Mr. Miskowski adds. "Such hard-to-find and intermittent problems are typically electronic in nature and are the primary cause of dissatisfied customers."
SBDS combines computer-driven service tools and diagnostic strategies with on-line service information to guide a service technician to the source of trouble and suggest a repair. It contains 29 electronic testers, meters, and measurement tools on four printed circuit boards. These on-line tools can find answers to complex electrical problems that technicians equipped with hand-held tools often miss.
With a direct link from the diagnostic computer to the engine control module, service technicians can use SBDS to identify and solve electrico-mechanical problems located in the ignition, base engine, electronic engine control, and the fuel systems.
ONE of SBDS's great advantages is its speed," says Gordy Kujawski, a service product development engineer for Ford. "The old method for testing injector flow, for example, took about 45 minutes and left some of the interpretation of data to the technician. The new method takes two minutes to hook up, one minute to run."
SBDS will also allow Ford to keep track on problems and relay information from dealerships to manufactures to engineers.
Because technicians must identify some engine problems while a car is moving, the Service Bay Diagnostic System includes a "portable vehicle analyzer." This battery- or vehicle-powered computer gathers information from road tests and then transfers data directly to the SBDS computer.
For elusive problems that occur on the road, the technician uses a "customer flight recorder" that he plugs into the automobile's data communication link and sends home with the customer. When trouble occurs, the driver presses a button and the flight recorder gathers diagnostic information. After the recorder captures the data three times, the customer returns to the dealership where the technician uploads the information into the SBDS computer and completes the diagnosis.
Should the technician need additional information, he can scan up to 50,000 pages of the latest service manuals in minutes using the compact disk reader, which is built into the SBDS cart. He can also retrieve the latest technical data via a phone link to Dearborn's on-line automobile service information system.
While Ford developed SBDS for the likes of Ike Williams at Krug Lincoln-Mercury in Dearborn, the call for additional SBDS technology could come from Europe. "With reunification in 1992, suddenly we have new emission standards in Europe," says Emil Pulick, manager of service systems design for Ford of Europe. "We could build a carbureted engine to meet those standards, but it is not an automobile you would want to drive."
For cleaner burning engines, better gas mileage, and smoother performance, European automakers are turning to electronic fuel injection, just as US automakers did in the late 1970s. They are also turning to a computer-controlled diagnostic system. Fiat S.P.A. has designed an automotive diagnostic cart for its line of Fiat, Lancia, and Alfa Romeo automobiles. The Rover Group is designing a sophisticated lap-top model for its Rover, Range Rover, and Land Rover vehicles.
Ford plans a SBDS equivalent in Europe later this decade.