What Is Automotive Diagnostic Software? Definition, Meaning and Concept

Automotive diagnostic software helps identify and repair problems in modern automobiles. This type of software often interfaces with a car's on-board diagnostic computer, and can be used by professional mechanics as well as hobbyists and home users. Automotive diagnostic software is available for many platforms.

Modern automobiles are a mix 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. However, today's cars and trucks aren't smart enough to fix themselves, so on-board computers can identify problems before a driver notices them. Automotive diagnostic software bridges the gap between man and machine, helping amateur and professional mechanics identify problems quickly and easily.

In the US, all vehicles sold since 1996 are required to have an internal diagnostic computer, as well as a standard interface for accessing data from the computer, emission control systems, and sensors. This set of standards, known as On-Board 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 to tools and software that could interface with cars from all manufacturers; It also provided independent mechanics with a way to access electronic information previously reserved for dealers.

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 check engine lights on car dashboards. DTCs can provide specific information about electrical and mechanical problems in a vehicle. Sometimes a driver can read or reset a trouble code without going 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 electronics, requesting information on everything from coolant temperature to ignition timing. These functions can provide useful information such as fuel economy or diagnose problems that do not necessarily trigger a DTC.

Professional automotive diagnostic software can rely on more than just OBD-II information. Auto mechanics and dealers may 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 aid to automotive service professionals. Also, some manufacturers employ codes and messages that are not part of the OBD-II standard that may be unreadable by consumer-grade software. These non-standard codes require professional software created with support for a particular manufacturer.