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What is Automotive Diagnostic Software?

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  • Written By: Robert Grimmick
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2016
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Automotive diagnostic software helps identify and repair problems in modern automobiles. This type of software frequently interfaces with a car’s onboard diagnostic computer, and may be used by professional mechanics as well as hobbyists and home users. Automotive diagnostic software is available for many platforms.

Modern automobiles are a blend of 20th century heritage and 21st century technology. While the most basic concepts of the internal combustion engine haven’t changed much since the birth of the automobile, modern electronics and computer technology have made cars cleaner, safer, and more efficient. Today’s cars and trucks aren’t smart enough to fix themselves, however, so onboard computers can often identify problems before a driver notices them. Automotive diagnostic software bridges the gap between man and machine, and helps both amateur and professional mechanics identify problems quickly and easily.

In the U.S., all vehicles sold since 1996 are required to have an internal diagnostic computer, as well as a standard interface to access data from the computer, emissions control systems, and sensors. This set of standards, known as onboard diagnostics II (OBD-II), replaced earlier systems that were unique to each manufacturer. OBD-II and similar standards in Europe and Asia opened the door for tools and software that could interface with cars from all manufacturers; it also gave independent mechanics a way to access electronic information previously reserved to dealerships.

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Today, automotive diagnostic software that interfaces with ODB-II systems is available for virtually every platform, from laptops to smartphones. The capabilities of these programs vary, but most can read diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) that trigger the check engine lights on car dashboards. DTCs can provide specific information about electric and mechanical problems in a vehicle. Sometimes a driver can read or reset a trouble code without a trip to an auto mechanic.

In addition to trouble codes, automotive diagnostic software can use OBD-II and similar European and Asian standards to monitor vehicle functions. The software can send a message to the car’s electronic devices, asking for information about everything from coolant temperature to ignition timing. These functions can provide useful information like gas mileage or diagnose problems that don’t necessarily trigger a DTC.

Professional automotive diagnostic software may rely on more than just OBD-II information. Mechanics and car dealerships might use specialized tools like an oscilloscope to diagnose electrical problems or an exhaust gas analyzer for emissions testing. Software to interface with these tools exists, and can be an important assist for automotive service professionals. In addition, some manufacturers employ codes and messages that are not part of the OBD-II standard which may be unreadable by consumer-level software. These non-standard codes require professional software built with support for a particular manufacturer.

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