There are far too many mechanics who don’t understand the importance of calibration to the modern vehicle. In many cases, these are skillful mechanics who are operating with outdated information. It is true that many older cars do not need these services on a regular basis. Still, those of us who don’t drive antique cars need better service than that.
What Is Scanning And Calibration?
Scanning and calibration is a term that can refer to numerous processes. It is what some people call an “umbrella term,” meaning it’s a term that covers a lot of ground. In most cases, these processes are not particularly difficult or expensive, so it’s a little bit of a mystery as to why so many shops avoid them.
When we talk about scanning, we are usually talking about the use of a plug-in diagnostic tool. These are the small handheld devices that plug into your car and check it for problems. Chances are, you have seen someone use one of these devices, though you may not understand how they work.
The automobile was not designed to be a self-diagnosing machine, so this feature required some extra parts to be added. In most cases, these parts are either cameras, motion sensors, or some combination of the two. By using these things as feedback devices, the engine control module (ECM) can feed specific malfunction data to the scanning device.
These scanning devices might be called “code readers,” “scanners,” “diagnostic tools,” or one of several other names. All you need to know is that these are merely different names for the same tool. However, that doesn’t mean that all of them are created equal. These tools have different levels of sensitivity, as well as a variety of different features.
Calibration is a term that usually refers to a sensitivity adjustment. For instance, a set of scales has to be regularly calibrated to ensure proper measurement. Likewise, many of the sensors, cameras, and other feedback devices found in your car will require calibration from time to time.
The word “calibrate” can have several different definitions. However, most of them relate to the adjustment of a device so that it can read properly. This is usually done by comparing them to a standard measurement so that you can see how far from the mark they are. For instance, a backup camera might be calibrated by adjusting its position or the angle at which it points. In that case, the adjustment is just a simple matter of positioning, but it’s not always that easy.
Here is a partial list of some vehicle systems that will require the occasional calibration job:
- Collision warning systems
- Cruise control
- Blind spot monitor
- Backup camera
- Automatic emergency braking
- Adaptive lighting
- Radar/LiDAR sensors (for autonomous vehicles)
- Parking brake position sensors
- Mass airflow sensors
- Steering angle/position sensors
- Fuel temperature sensors
- Manifold pressure sensors
- Electronic control module
Why Is Calibration So Important?
Again, calibration isn’t much of an issue for older vehicles. That’s because those older vehicles rely on manual performance for virtually all tasks, leaving everything in the hands of the user. While most people prefer this, it is a fact that most auto accidents are caused by simple human error.
That’s why the modern vehicle has a variety of mechanisms that help to correct the human element as necessary. While a completely self-driving car is unlikely to be viable anytime soon, the partial application of this idea is definitely quite beneficial.
Unfortunately, these automatic compensation systems come with one big downside. Although they can do a good job of saving your life, they depend on accurate feedback in order to do so. If the sensor or other component is not delivering accurate feedback, the result will be a miscorrection. In other words, you might end up having an accident because your vehicle corrected you in the wrong way.
For a good example of this, we might look at the collision avoidance systems that have become common on many vehicles today. While they haven’t really caught on in the United States, some European countries have actually passed laws that require all new cars to have these features.
To find out why these systems have not been made mandatory in the USA, we might look at the following government-funded study. This study looked at roughly 600 cases in which collision-avoidance systems were activated.
This report contains both good news and bad news for the future of CAS. On the positive side, they said that they did not observe any instances in which the CAS systems caused an accident. However, they did see quite a few false triggerings of the system. Even though none of these malfunctions resulted in a catastrophe, any one of them could have easily done so.
We can also see an important clue within the study. All of the vehicles in the study were tested to ensure that they were in proper working order. This would presumably include the calibration of the CAS system, as that was the element being tested. That explains why none of the malfunctions were serious enough to cause anything more than a little annoyance.
To see the more extreme end of the possible malfunctions, we might take a look at this poor guy. Kaushal Gandhi was killed in November 2016 when his vehicle got stuck in cruise control mode. Because cruise control is one of the many vehicle systems that depend on regular scanning and calibration, it is likely that a trip to the mechanic would have prevented his death. Considering that he was completely decapitated while traveling over 100 MPH, you should have plenty of motivation to keep those systems functioning properly.
Terms To Understand
Whether you are a mechanic in training or a normal person in need of car repair, it pays to understand a few key terms. While this list does not include everything that is relevant (that would take far too long), it should be good enough to give you a basic understanding of how all this stuff works.
When a diagnostic tool is plugged into your vehicle’s OBD port, the output of the data may not be easy for you to read. Instead of displaying specific problems, the machine will display malfunction codes that consist of a series of letters and numbers. These codes usually begin with letters and end with numbers. More importantly, each one represents a specific vehicle problem that has been detected.
When you understand vehicle codes, you should also understand that false readings are possible. Once again, the on-board diagnostic system depends on accurate feedback in order to do its job. If those sensors are not properly calibrated, you could end up with a tangled mess of contradictory codes. Because such data is useless (since it can’t be confirmed or disproven without physically checking the vehicle), you don’t want to find yourself in this position.
Reprogramming is a very specific type of calibration. Most parts do not require this kind of adjustment, but those that interface directly with the ECM will need this kind of calibration before being installed. Even if that part seems to fit on the car with no trouble, it still might have trouble interfacing with the main computer of your car (which is the ECM).
As cars become more computerized, they are bound to become more and more prone to these sorts of compatibility issues. Because this problem is inherent to the workings of the computer, it isn’t likely to change anytime soon. For more information on vehicle reprogramming, check out this guide. The process of reprogramming is also called “flashing.” Thankfully, this kind of calibration isn’t needed very often.
If you hear the term “OEM Calibration,” you should know that OEM stands for “Original Engine Manufacturer.” It’s just a term that refers to the company that made your vehicle. When something is calibrated to OEM standards, it just means that the mechanic is using a set of standards and guidelines provided by the maker of your vehicle.
As the name implies, static recalibration can be done inside the confines of an auto shop. Because there is no test-driving required, this kind of calibration tends to be a little faster and easier. At the same time, it does require the hand of an expert to ensure the best results.
One example of a static recalibration test would be a test of the vehicles’ fuel temperature sensor. By using a thermometer in the gas tank (or perhaps in one of the fuel lines), the mechanic would test the actual temperature of the fuel. These numbers would then be compared to the reactions of the vehicle. By doing this, a skilled mechanic can determine if the reading is wrong, and can pinpoint the number of degrees by which it is wrong.
Dynamic calibration is the exact opposite of static recalibration. This kind of calibration involves test-driving the car to check the feedback given. In most cases, a shop will have access to special software that is used for this purpose. Basically, it hooks into the ECM like a scanner, giving real-time results for all kinds of important metrics. By using one of these tools, you can identify most problems with a short drive around the block.
The only important thing to know here is that some mechanics might opt for a mixture of static and dynamic methods. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it could be a red flag in some cases. A mechanic who doesn’t really know what they are doing might do this to try and keep anyone from questioning their methods. However, as long as you understand the differences between these two methods of calibration, you should be able to avoid that kind of foolishness.
Normally, a person should have confidence in the ability of their chosen mechanic. Otherwise, they shouldn’t be bringing their vehicle to him in the first place. The process of scanning and calibration is not always that simple, unfortunately. There are far too few auto repair professionals that understand the true importance of this matter.
Some mechanics look at all these sensors and see a bunch of useless technology. This attitude reflects a time when sensors were used only for diagnosis. Nowadays, they are used for so many things that we literally don’t have the space to list all of them. Because they are most often used for safety systems, there is a special kind of liability that comes with their calibration. We hope that you have enjoyed this article and that we have given you a good introduction to this complex and serious matter. If so, please fill out the contact form located on the right.