Gareth Davies runs a German car specialist workshop in South Wales. Here, in part one of two articles, he explains why he made the jump to providing dealer diagnostics five years ago and the process this involved.
I run a well-established, proficient German car specialist, specialising in the VAG, BMW and Mercedes brands of cars and light commercials, using a broad range of aftermarket diagnostic tools and resources, as well as the dealer tools for all three brands.
Over the past twenty years, as a vehicle technician and subsequent garage owner, I have used a multitude of diagnostic tools, ranging from the old Snap-on MT2500, where keys were fitted to a lead to make a compatible communication between the car and the diagnostic tool, right the way through to multiple modern day manufacturer online- based diagnostic tools with the necessary user rights.
We are now working at a level of complexity in the independent repair sector that to survive and compete, you need to be able to provide solutions to basic maintenance, through to complex diagnostic tasks. The needs and demands of the customer haven’t necessarily changed in the 20 years I’ve been a part of the trade – their car still requires a service or general repairs, or has a fault that requires investigating and fixing, and some of the very first customers to use my garage are still bringing me their cars with the same expectations. The landscape has definitively changed in recent years and the customer is usually blissfully unaware of the background investment and training that assures we are able to create solutions with very little fuss or drama.
An illustrative example would be Mr Jones who brought in his MK4 Golf TDI. It could be serviced reasonably simply – changing the cambelt and water pump was easy enough, resetting the service light or changing the rear brakes, a doddle. Admissibly, the car had some CAN Bus systems fitted, so diagnosis required a level up change from the previous MK3 platform, but life was good with the Snap-on MT2500. We ‘did’ diagnostics, where others didn’t and you became the ‘go-to guy’ if you had VAG Com, or better still, you had VAS PC via a 1551 tester, wow!
How has the landscape changed? We still have Mr Jones bringing in his VW Golf TDI, now in a MK7 variant but think of the challenges now faced to service and maintain the same vehicle? You need a significantly capable diagnostic tool to carry out many of the required service tasks. The fuel system requires bleeding post filter change otherwise there is risk of damage to the high-pressure fuel system. You need to bleed the very advanced and intricate cooling system after water pump replacement, which as many of you will know, is quite a clever water pump in its own right, along with the other two electronic auxiliary items fitted to the engine. You need a diagnostic tool to carry out rear brake service as the model is equipped with EPB. You need a capable tool to reset both service lights, rather than just the one, but most significantly, many replacement parts now considered control units, will require some form of security handshake, rather than just vehicle-specific coding.
Most of the above will be academic, this is our bread and butter work, for a specialist or general repair garage, right? It’s just a Golf after all. What about when we delve into the art of fault finding? This is where the game has changed.
My own experience of acquiring dealer tools was as a necessity around five years ago. We had a 2012 Audi RS5 in for a diagnostic assessment. There were two complaints, an engine management light and intermittent long crank and a gearbox warning light on the centre display along with harsh changing, and sometimes no changing at all. The car had been to an Audi Dealer for assessment and the customer came to us for a more competitive quote. We gave comparisons based on potential repairs required and the customer agreed to get the vehicle to us.
The vehicle was diagnosed with one of our trusty aftermarket tools and we were happy that four camshaft sensors were required and an engine ECU software update as per a Technical Service Bulletin. The gearbox issue at face value appeared to be a compromised wiring harness within the S Tronic gearbox, another well documented TSB. The engine repair was carried out and the gearbox was stripped down, to find that not only the internal wiring harness as per the TSB was faulty, but the ribbon and multiplug connector on the Mechatronics unit was corroded and non repairable, at the time. The horizon had shifted considerably for the customer, a mechatronics unit is not a cheap item from Audi, nonetheless repairs were authorised. However, the final section of the repair was component protection removal from the gearbox (a vehicle intelligent part) and the software update. This is where the dealer tool was required.
The car couldn’t be fixed unless I spent some money on acquiring the dealer tool or the car took a trip to Audi on a recovery truck. Whilst I respect dealers for what they are, this cut right through my soul, I couldn’t finish the job.
Life then becomes interesting when you say, “OK, let’s order the dealer tool, how much is it and how quickly can I get it?” It was not that expensive by comparison of current tooling investment at the time, but get it soon? No chance. We began the application process to become authorised. This can take some time, for VAG it can be as much as 8-12 weeks. The independent team at VAG UK has been under a lot of pressure with limited resources, that once coped well with the relative low number of national independent users, now with a steady rise of users and applications, new applicants are facing a longer authorisation lead time. Recently, a newly expanded team has been assembled, whilst retaining some of the original (and very helpful, might I add) team, and things are improving. Bear this in mind, this is not a tool that can be ordered today, paid for and delivered tomorrow.
The application process for VAG at the time seemed daunting. This involves creating an Erwin account, a form-filling exercise, some verification of ID and credentials, ordering of the software on discs for the required brands, applying for an ORG ID, applying for GEKO rights (be mindful you need a clean personal history for this, naughty boys and girls not allowed) and then, choice of tester – VAG-supplied interface and laptop or the J2534 pass thru route using your own laptop. Needless to say, the turning point was a significant evaluation of diagnostic tooling.
We paid the money to the dealer, the car went out and we got paid. We than sat down to evaluate all of the new challenges that had never been an issue before because they were all taken care of using various independent tooling. How were we going to overcome them as an independent specialist, where this type of work was an everyday occurrence?
What is your offering? Depending on what you diagnose as the fault, can you confidently know that you will be able to affect the repair to the end stage? If you are going to dip your toe in the pond of dealer tooling, to what degree? Nuts and bolts haven’t changed much over 20 years but complicated electronics, control modules and vehicle intelligent parts have. A lot.