Does your vehicle need a tech upgrade?

by Jim KerrAuto Tech . Nov 04 2016

ANYONE who has a home computer or a smartphone — and that’s almost everybody these days — has experienced the dreaded and continuous “upgrades.” What many don’t realize is how much of our vehicles operate on an amazing amount of electronics, from fuel injection systems to accident avoidance systems. There could be 40 different electronic modules in some vehicles and each of these modules is really a small computer.

If our personal computers need upgrades or reprogramming, do our vehicles need this too? The answer is yes and no.

When computers were first added to our vehicles in the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, often the complete computer module was replaced with an updated unit. Some computers had a replaceable PROM (Programmable Read Only Memory) chip that could be replaced with the new program. By the late 1990s, many computers could be reprogrammed by connecting them up to special diagnostic tools and getting an upgrade from a computer disc.

Today, many upgrade programs for vehicle computers are done through the Internet. From a special “factory website” a technician transfers the program to the vehicle through a data connection using a reprogramming scan tool.

So when does a vehicle need a computer upgrade or reprogramming? Your vehicle may never need one.

Reprogramming is usually done to correct a problem with the original computer program. For example, perhaps your vehicle has a hesitation when accelerating in cold weather.

If the manufacturer determines that this is due to a program error, it may design a new program to correct the problem. When you bring your vehicle in for repair because of the hesitation, the technician looks up the service bulletins and after determining that the problem is not due to another fault on the vehicle, they can reprogram (sometimes called reflashing) the computer to correct the problem.

If your vehicle never hesitates, it would never need reprogramming.

Your vehicle might be reprogrammed if emissions testing done by the manufacturer or the government after the vehicle is built shows that it produces excessive exhaust emissions.

Then a recall notice may be issued so that all affected vehicles would have their computers reprogrammed to correct the excessive emissions.

Reprogramming for safety concerns can also be required.

Toyota developed a new program for the engine computer that reduces the engine power as soon as the brake pedal is pressed, even if you have the gas pedal pressed.

This was reprogrammed into existing vehicles and many manufacturers now incorporate it into their new vehicle models.

With the introduction of autonomous vehicles, reprogramming will become common to continuously update the mapping information to the vehicle.

The reprogramming of GPS map systems is often done currently to include the latest map database in the vehicle.

Lose your keys? When new keys are purchased, the electronic “key code” for the new key must be reprogrammed into the vehicle before the key will work. Sometimes this can be done by the owner if you have an original key. On other vehicles, a computer diagnostic scan tool must be used to reprogram the new key.

If you change radios from one vehicle to another, it may need reprogramming. The vehicle serial number is stored in the radio control head and the audio system won’t work unless the new serial number is entered to match the serial number in other vehicle computers. This reduces the theft of audio systems from vehicles because they simply don’t work unless reprogrammed.

Even on the assembly line, vehicles are reprogrammed. For example, when a Ford Edge gets near the end of the assembly line, data is transmitted to the vehicle wirelessly to program the vehicle computers with the option and accessory content on the vehicle. Without this information, the vehicle would not work correctly.

So does your vehicle need reprogramming? Most never will. If you physically change options or features on your vehicle, you may need to get it reprogrammed, or if there is an emission or driveability problem, reprogramming may be done to correct the issue. And, unlike your home computer, closing windows and restarting isn’t something we have to do as a common automotive repair procedure.