Diagnostic Dilemma

How do you balance the needs of truck owners to get their trucks repaired where they want, and the needs of manufacturers and dealers to protect their investment?

Deborah Lockridge
Senior Editor

Once upon a time, people worked on their own cars. Shade-tree mechanics bought Mitchell or Chilton manuals and jacked up their cars in the driveway or the back yard. If you weren't so inclined, the service station down the street had a few service bays in addition to the gas pumps out front.

Then, in the early '80s, along came on-board computers on cars, needed for real-time tuning of fuel injection systems in order to meet emissions regulations. The world of on-board diagnostics was born. Electronics came to control more and more vehicle functions, and in order to work on them, you had to have sophisticated computer equipment and software. Today, shade tree mechanics are rare, and most corner service stations have been converted into quick marts.

We're seeing the same thing happen with commercial vehicles. With electronics controlling not just engine functions such as fuel injection, but also transmissions, antilock brakes and other components, diagnosing and repairing trucks today takes sophisticated computer software and access to vital information about the vehicle systems. Making things even more complex than in passenger cars, in trucks, the computers on components from different manufacturers all have to communicate with each other.

Getting access to this diagnostic and repair information is not always easy, unless you're a dealer (and even for dealers, it's an expensive investment). Independent repair shops and many fleets say they need this information. But equipment manufacturers limit access to some information - to protect their investment, and to ensure that only qualified technicians with the right tools and information work on their products.

Unless things change, many independents fear they face the same fate as those corner service stations, as electronics continue to become more and more heavily integrated on trucks.

It's also an issue for truck owners, says Robert Braswell, technical director for the American Trucking Associations' Technology and Maintenance Council. "If an independent repair shop doesn't have access to the information to repair a customer's truck, you're captive to the dealer network. And that is, for a couple of reasons, a bad idea for the American trucking fleet.

"First of all, even in an ideal world, (dealers) don't have the capacity to handle everybody's business and even if there were enough service points, they have an awful tough time with downtime. Their motivation to get the vehicle in and out is not the same as the fleet's. That's one of the reasons the fleets have retained their own maintenance operations - three-quarters of them are still doing their own maintenance. That's why independent repair shops and fleets doing their own maintenance is important. If you don't have access to the information to do the repairs, it's a problem."

Right to Repair?

In automotive circles, this debate is called "Right to Repair," and there have been numerous attempts to enact legislation at both the state and federal levels to force manufacturers to provide this information. (See accompanying story, page 40.)

It's hardly a new issue, but the sophisticated computer electronics have changed the debate. Thirty years ago, the argument revolved around disassembly and assembly procedures, torque wrenches and vacuum gauges. Today, it involves computers and fault codes.

"It's become more important in recent years because of the increase in use of electronics and computers on trucks," says Marc Karon, president of Florida-based parts distributor Total Truck Parts and treasurer of the Commercial Vehicle Solutions Network, an organization of independent parts and service aftermarket distributors, which supports Right to Repair legislation. "The codes on these systems, and the integration of systems with other systems, makes it almost impossible to fix some of the more recent trucks without these codes. It will get to the point where you can't fix a truck unless you have access to this critical information."

Dave Scheer, president of Kansas-based Inland Truck Parts, says he invites any OEM executive to spend the day with him at one of his 25 locations. "We'll show him a number of issues on his vehicle that we can't work on because we can't get the information. We can get a lot of it, but the critical repairs, when push comes to shove, you just can't get everything you need." It's especially a problem if technicians need to access information by VIN number to get detailed information on a specific truck - wiring diagrams, parts information, recall information and more. For that kind of information, independent shops are told the truck has to go to the dealer.

Mike Besson, vice president of service for Rush Enterprises, says there's a reason some repairs need to be handled by the dealer.

"Dealing with today's vehicle technology and on-board diagnostics is no small task," he says. He explains that there are four to five ECUs installed on vehicles today, and that number is expected to grow to about 20 with implementation of future technology.

"While the technology is greatly advanced, on-board diagnostics are intended to alert the truck operator to a problem, and do not necessarily diagnose the repair," Besson says. "That requires extensive training and certification, specific tooling and software licensing from the truck and major component manufacturers."

Besson estimates that to receive that certification, Rush spends $2,500 to $3,000 a year per technician in training, just to keep them current in the technology that is now fundamental to component diagnostics. That's more than a $2.5 million annual investment, and doesn't even include the cost to license the necessary software associated with diagnostics. For instance, Rush recently spent more than $250,000 network-wide - about $1,100 per laptop - to license software for just one engine manufacturer. "When you multiply that cost by 10 to 15 major component suppliers, software licensing is a considerable investment that dealers are making," he says.

Dealers obviously want to make sure they get a return on that investment and aren't inclined to hand out that kind of information to independent shops that compete with them.

"Manufacturers say, 'go to the dealer,' " Scheer says. "But the dealer network cannot support the amount of work that's out there. And fundamentally, they're denying their customer, the truck owner, the choice of where he wants to get his vehicle worked on. We're not asking them for any sort of patent information, any sort of design - we just want the information we need to fix the truck."

Scheer isn't the only one who says dealers typically don't have enough bays and technicians as it is, and truck owners often face long waits for service. This problem is just going to get worse as these complex trucks fall out of warranty. In the past, owners of out-of-warranty trucks were more likely to take them to an independent shop, which usually costs less and can get the work done faster. But without access to the diagnostic and repair information they need, these shops will be forced to tell customers they can't help them and they'll have to go to the dealer.

"Dealers are usually working on newer trucks that are under warranty, and they don't have the capacity to work on 5- to 10-year-old trucks," says Tim Kraus, president of the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association, which represents both OEM and aftermarket manufacturers and has no official position on the issue. "As the electronic engines start making their way out of warranty, they have been running into some problems. I think the market wasn't prepared for the advent of all the electronic control systems, for the independent channel to be able to adequately service those products."

Independents aren't asking for the information to be free, says Peter Pasdach, chairman of the board for Vipar Heavy Duty (which supports Right to Repair legislation) and president of Midway Truck Parts, based in Bridgeview, Ill. "We're asking that the access to that technology be open to the marketplace, at least at such time as that vehicle is out of warranty."

How Much Info Is Available?

People on different sides of the issue disagree about just how much of a problem there is regarding information access.

"Independent repair shops already have all this information available to them," says Bailey Wood, spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association and its American Truck Dealers division.

Wood contends that manufacturers offer much of this information on their web sites, and that it is available through third-party vendors such as Mitchell1, which offers web-based service and repair information for heavy-duty tractors, dry vans and reefers dating back to 1990 through Tractor-Trailer.net.

But independents say it's not enough. "A lot of times stuff is available, but as you get deeper and deeper into the repairs, for instance if you need to replace wiring on a truck, you can't get the wiring diagram from the manufacturer," Karon says. "The danger is, people will wire it any which way they can. We don't do that, but other people do. Next thing you know, the air bags don't work, or the ABS doesn't work."

One problem is, the amount of information available varies greatly by manufacturer. Some OEMs offer a great deal of information. For instance, there are services such as Cummins QuickServe, which contains parts and service information for more than 9 million Cummins engine serial numbers. At Rush Enterprises, which operates 48 Rush Truck Centers, they offer fleet customers a service through Peterbilt, called Fleet E-Cat, where the fleet is able to obtain specific information on their chassis, including comprehensive parts listings, wiring diagrams and software, to allow them to troubleshoot and repair their vehicles within their own shop.

The Engine Manufacturers Association addressed the issue in formal comments made last year in response to the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to adopt new service information requirements in conjunction with its proposed regulations for 2010 emissions onboard diagnostics systems.

"The heavy-duty industry has a long history using relationship marketing methods customer service after the sale is considered a key factor to win ongoing, follow-on business for replacement engines and vehicles. From a practical standpoint, withholding service information from customers, or independent repair facilities acting on their behalf, would be a betrayal and contrary to relationship marketing principles."

At the same time, they're not going to provide that information for free. Part of the issue is who's willing to pay for what. Some of the engine manufacturers will make it available if you're willing to pay for it.

Others, however, simply will not make it available to third parties.

"There are really two different issues here - is the information available, and if it's available, at what cost," says Bruce Plaxton of BGP Marketing Solutions, which provides research and consulting services to manufacturers. "At least some independents feel it ought to be available and it ought to be available at no cost. If you or I had spent tens of millions of dollars developing state-of-the-art technology to meet emissions standards, we would probably be as protective as (the engine manufacturers) are." At the same time, he says, "I think there's an issue to be made that the information should be available in the broader marketplace."

Large and savvy fleet customers have discovered that they can often get access to the information they need by building it into their purchasing agreements, says Steph Sabo, chairman of TMC's Truck Complexity Task Force and maintenance manager for Norrenberns Truck Service in Nashville, Ill.

"The problem is that sometimes, their support of the service information to a fleet leaves a lot to be desired," in terms of information updates and the like. "So you've almost got to have an IT guy just to stay up with that."

Component manufacturers, such as those providing transmissions and antilock brakes, seem to be better at providing access to information than engine or truck makers.

"Most every Tier 2 supplier has outstanding web sites with outstanding service information," Sabo says.

A problem arises, however, when you look at how those components integrate with others, says Karon.

"If you have antilock braking and you integrate that with some sort of ride control system, if they're both from the same vendor, that vendor will give you access to that information," Karon says. "But if one's made by Bendix and one's made by Meritor, for instance, the determination of how those systems integrate together is made by the manufacturer of the vehicle, and he has the fault codes, and he can decide whether to release those fault codes to you or not. There's a lot of talk about electronic braking, about traction systems; we're going to see more and more electronic systems that are going to be integrated through computers on a truck."

Third-Party Tools

There are third-party suppliers that offer diagnostic tools and fault code readers that can provide some of this information. Nexiq, for instance, offers its ProLink scan tool, eTechnician fleet maintenance and diagnostics software, and a fault code guide. Eaton offers its MD (mobile diagnostics) tools line, which includes handheld scan tools and PC diagnostic software.

Caterpillar, in its comments to the EPA's service information proposal, predicts increasing use of such scan tools.

"Heavy-duty engines have standardized on J1587, J1708, and J1939. The standardization of both the communication protocol and the interface has provided a suitable, unhindered environment for the aftermarket to develop generic scan tools. With 2010 OBD, standardized diagnostic services will be extended further on engines to give more capability to generic scan tools."

But these solutions only go so far. While these kind of tools will read SAE-standard fault codes, there is a "next level of fault codes" when you're dealing with some repairs, explains Phil Warmbier, marketing manager, Eaton Vehicle Solutions Business Unit. "A manufacturer will say, 'that's a repair that is going to require a level of knowledge and understanding of that vehicle or that product,' and those may not be broadcast."

In addition, every manufacturer has proprietary software that takes it to the next level, Warmbier says. But they're not going to provide that software to just anybody, and it's usually reserved for the dealer body.

Charlie Gorman, executive manager of the Equipment and Tool Institute, points out that the issue of information access has changed over the years as these diagnostic tools become more common. He's seen it happen on the automotive side, and now it's going on in heavy-duty.

"When heavy-duty engines were simpler, you could get pretty much anything you needed to repair the engines from a written standpoint. You still can. Where it gets more complex is trying to find aftermarket tools (that include the information you need). It really isn't service information in a traditional sense, but information that has to be provided to aftermarket scan tool providers."

Protecting Their Investment

OEMs say there is some information that independent shops and truck owners should not have access to - proprietary information, intellectual property, things that would infringe on contract issues between the dealers and the OEMs, access codes that would allow tampering with federally required emissions equipment or would allow engine settings such as horsepower to be changed. Much of the sought-after information is actually covered by patents, copyright, and contract laws.

In today's digital world, much of the investment companies make in research and development is captured by software - computer codes. In a May 28, 2007, article entitled "Microsoft Takes on the Free World," Fortune magazine quotes Microsoft officials: "We have invested millions in developing the software, our intellectual property. The only way we can recoup that investment and generate a profit is to charge for and to restrict access." This applies to the shop floor as well as the PC world.

Independent shops disagree. "How to fix something has never in the past been an intellectual property," says Total Truck Parts' Karon. "Intellectual property has always been aimed at preventing other people from manufacturing. I've never heard of intellectual property being able to give OEMs a monopoly on how to fix things."

One key issue is the fact that truck engines can be reprogrammed for different horsepower ratings.

"Those engines cost different amounts and the warranties are different lengths based on nothing but software, because it affects the hardware," explains Gorman. "Engine manufacturers don't want to just hand over that capability to the aftermarket, where they can't have control over the warranty and cost of those services."

The Engine Manufacturers Association, again in its comments to EPA, notes that "current heavy-duty reprogramming and calibration tools (in the form of software) have the power to change the horsepower and torque on an engine, which are some of the very features that manufacturers sell. The nearly impossible challenge for manufacturers is how to make such tools and systems secure, yet 'open' enough for third parties to be able to use them.

"As aftermarket providers are given the tools not just to service, but to calibrate and reconfigure engines, there is a possibility that inadvertent or deliberate mis-configuring may occur."

Making it more complicated, EMA notes, different configurations may have different hardware variations, such as different turbochargers or different fuel injectors. If someone were to accidentally or purposefully change a horsepower rating without making the corresponding hardware changes, it could affect engine performance, durability and emissions control.

More Than Information

There is also concern on the part of manufacturers that independent shops and fleets may not have the level of sophistication, training and technology required, even if such information access is provided.

"If someone isn't qualified to rebuild, say, a Caterpillar engine because they don't have the proper training, tools, or settings, and they send it out and 500 miles away it breaks down, the company that owns that vehicle is going to blame Caterpillar, not the shop that fixed it," says HDMA's Kraus. "So some of issue there is brand protection on their part."

Eaton's Warmbier explains that "when it comes to the complexity of J1939 and diagnosing vehicles, there's a level of support that comes with releasing your software out to the market. In the case of a one-off shop, it becomes very challenging for a manufacturer to support that. Where you get into a larger company, the dealer body, a fleet, that has the infrastructure to support that and is willing to put technicians through certified training programs on your product, a manufacturer is less reluctant to provide proprietary software."

Warmbier gives the example of a transmission ECU throwing a fault code. There may be nothing wrong with the transmission, but it's throwing the fault code because it's unable to communicate with another ECU on the truck, because that other ECU has gone down.

"Trained technicians go in there and realize there's nothing wrong with the transmission," he says. "There's a level of training and support that goes with that. It's really more than, 'It's our intellectual property so no one can have it.' It's the cost of supporting it, of making sure the right trained individuals are working on the products in the field so you know they're repaired properly."

Some independents say they'd be more than willing to go through training and even a certification process of some sort to ease such fears. For instance, some large independent shops have gone through a process to be certified as Allison transmission service centers.

One of those is Inland Truck Parts. "We buy the necessary software and tooling, we do the necessary training, and we have a full-time technical trainer for our drive-in service shops and for our rebuilding shops," says Scheer, who has been actively involved in this information access issue. "We are more than willing to buy any software or tools required to do the job correctly. Because that's really all we want - we want to be able to do a good job for the truck owner, who is not only our customer, but the truck manufacturers' customer also."

One source at an engine manufacturer, speaking anonymously, notes that his company does train fleets so they can perform warranty repairs. Because today's vehicles are so complex, he says, unless they are trained and equipped with the proper computer-based diagnostic tools, technicians will probably not have the expertise to effectively and efficiently do many repairs. However, he says, he would personally vote to endorse independent shops with the proper training and tools.

"I'm not saying they should hand this stuff out willy-nilly without some qualification if it's in a safety-related area," Karon says. "It's not that big a deal; dealers don't sent their people away for weeks to learn how to download and understand fault codes. But if you do need that training, I would be all in favor of making everyone go through the training."

However, not everyone who's in favor of greater access to repair information is willing to make those investments in tools, equipment and training, say some.

"The problem is, there are some people who believe they can't fix something because someone hasn't tapped them with a magic wand," Gorman says. "There are a lot of obstacles that confront a shop, and information access certainly isn't the only one. Some shops just refuse to get the training - they say, 'This looks too difficult, this is (too expensive).' So what do you say about this guy - he doesn't have access, or he didn't want access?"

The Engine Manufacturers Association, in its EPA comments, noted that "while third-party service providers can, in theory, be trained to do the same checks as factory-authorized service facilities, the fact that they typically service several different brands of engines, each with their own idiosyncrasies as far as configuration variations, means that they may be 'less specialized' and more likely to make mistakes than factory-authorized outlets that, in many cases focus on servicing engines from a single manufacturer."

Potential Solutions

Most people, even those who support Right to Repair legislation, would prefer to work this issue out without getting the government involved.

On the automotive side, in 2000, the National Automotive Service Task Force was created to try to help fill in information gaps.

"It's kind of a clearinghouse," explains HDMA's Kraus. "They have a web site where you can find fault code information, and that seems to be working relatively well, depending on whom you ask, on the automotive/light vehicle end of things."

One recent accomplishment of NASTF, for instance, was agreeing on a way to allow aftermarket shops to cut keys for the new electronic lock systems - something that used to be available only to dealers. That involved a lot of work by the OEMs, the aftermarket, and locksmiths.

"As NASTF, our job is to find those gaps and to talk to OEMs about filling those gaps, and on the information side, providing repair information; we find very few if any gaps," says Gorman, who is current NASTF chairman in addition to his job with the Equipment and Tool Institute.

NADA's Wood points to NASTF as proof that Right to Repair is not really a big issue. "In 2006, there were 500 million automotive service repair events," he says. "Of these, only 32 requests were made to NASTF. So if there is such a problem, why weren't there a million complaints?"

Karon disagrees. "If it were working, all these associations wouldn't be supporting this (Right to Repair) legislation. In the business world, people prefer not to get the government involved. We would certainly rather sit down with the manufacturers than having to resort to legislation. But in the absence of having the other side want to talk about it, we have no choice but to go to the government."

Gorman predicts that eventually, NASTF will expand to cover the heavy-duty arena, or a similar group will be formed to perform the same function for the commercial vehicle market.

"What I think is necessary for the future is some sort of group similar to NASTF," says HDMA's Kraus, "where we can get the engine, transmission and braking people, the OEMs, and the independent side - the parts distributors, the parts manufacturers, the independent shops - to all sit down at a table and find out where are the areas of common ground, and where we can work together.

"Shouldn't we worry more about keeping trucks on the road than worrying about who has more sand in their sandbox?"

A number of aftermarket organizations recently put together a group to address this issue. Operating under the auspices of the Heavy Duty Distribution Association (part of the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, a proponent of Right to Repair legislation) the Commercial Vehicle Task Force plans to seek the cooperation of OEMs in "developing a voluntary system to ensure the independent aftermarket's access to all necessary tools and information."

"We're trying to sit down with the manufacturers and talk about these issues they bring up," Karon says. "How do we make sure the information doesn't get into the wrong hands? All these issues can be discussed and worked out, other than 'This is my intellectual property and I don't want to give it up.' "

Eaton's Warmbier believes that as more and more out-of-warranty trucks with sophisticated electronics need repairs, we will see changes.

"Dealer bodies typically have a line of trucks waiting to be repaired," he says. "I know several companies, including ours, are trying to evaluate ways to meet the needs of the customer, but still control the cost of support and infrastructure associated with releasing your proprietary software into the market. It is a balance."

Warmbier believes that as this market grows, large independent shops are going to be more willing to make the investment in the equipment and training to work on this equipment, which will make OEMs more likely to give them access to the information they need - for a price.

"I think the manufacturers are going to be cautions, because there is support that goes along with that whenever you release your proprietary software to a shop - it's not just selling the CD and you walk away," Warmbier says. "Because ultimately, we serve the same customer."

[PAGEBREAK]Parts Predicament

While the "right to repair" debate centers on electronic diagnostic and repair information, there is also a parts aspect to the issue.

There is continued pressure from OE truck builders in trying to negotiate with OE component manufacturers to build proprietary components and entire exclusive proprietary systems, says Pete Pasdach, chairman of the board for Vipar Heavy Duty and president of Midway Truck Parts.

Pasdach offers an example of a customer who needed a starter for his earthmoving equipment. The dealership quoted him $786 for the OE brand starter. Midway contacted its local independent electrical distributor, who is a distributor for the same component manufacturer's starter, and was able to save the customer more than $300 on the purchase price - same brand, same warranty.

"Had the starter been a proprietary component, the consumer would have had no choice but to pay the higher price quoted by the equipment dealer," Pasdach says. "The consumer should be able to choose where to purchase parts and service. Ultimately, competition is good for the consumer and for business in general."

Often, "right to repair" advocates are talking about parts that are only available through a dealer, explains Tim Kraus, president of the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association, which represents both OEM and aftermarket manufacturers. The reason for that limited availability, he says, may have to do with the fact that the part is low-volume and the manufacturer is under contract to only sell it to the OEM and its dealer network. Or it may be that the parts are patented.

"If a company produces, say, a fuel injector that is patented, they have every right to defend their patent, to make sure are able to they recover their investment in research and design and testing," Kraus says. "Some parts manufacturers claim they should have access to those patented designs to compete with them effectively. That's not the way the intellectual property laws work in this country."

Bailey Wood, spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association and its American Truck Dealers division, says this is a key reason behind the aftermarket's "right to repair" effort.

"Why are they attempting to get hold of auto and truck maker blueprints? It's about stealing proprietary parts information," Wood says. "The bills that are out there specifically threaten auto and truck makers' intellectual property. Large aftermarket parts makers and distributors are simply trying to get free access to facilitate the reverse-engineering process."

He points to the fact that some of the groups pushing for "right to repair" legislation are third-party diagnostic and repair information providers, such as Mitchell and Alldata, that actually are owned by aftermarket parts companies (Napa and AutoZone, respectively).

Marc Karon, president of Florida-based parts distributor Total Truck Parts, scoffs at the notion. "Distributors do not make knock-offs," says Karon, who's also treasurer of the Commercial Vehicle Solutions Network, an organization of independent parts and service aftermarket distributors. "We're not looking for how the part was made - we're looking at what the code is so the truck or car is put together in a safe manner."

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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