The motor industry is entering a new world in which a high-tech remote-controlled sentinel stands permanent watch over vehicles, recording their movements and performance.
The two benefits for motorists of this system of remote diagnostics are increased protection against theft, and rapid identification not only of mechanical and electronic faults, but of potential faults.
This is possible because of a device known as CAReader, which is made by a San Diego, California company, NetworkCar. CAReader is permanently plugged into one of the motor's on-board diagnostics (OBD) ports, which is where the workshop gains access to test engine electronics.
It maintains a constant watch over engine systems and notes any malfunctions or potential malfunctions. It is an advance on earlier systems of OBD because, if a fault is detected, it sends an e-mail to both local garage and owners.
The system also helps in cases of theft, because then position of the car is known at any given time. An automatic tracking device sends reports every two minutes over a wireless network linked with the satellite-based GPS.
The owner needs only to look in the Internet at the NetworkCar secured web site to find where the car is.
The system reminds owners when scheduled maintenance checks are due, if a fuel pump is failing, or if the transmission is about to malfunction.
Jim Goldman, of Tech Live, part of TechTV, quoted one Californian owner, Ed LeClair, who discovered one morning his car was missing. LeClair logged on to the car's web site, and discovered immediately where the vehicle was -- parked eight kilometers away. He rang the police, told them where the car was.
NetworkCar's Web site quoted LeClair as saying that less than 90 minutes later, the car had been recovered.
"NetworkCar was able to tell me when my car had been moved, the number of miles it had been driven and even where it had been," LeClair said.
CAReader is proving a boon for dealers, because the number of owner's returning to the dealer who installed the system has increased.
OBD was introduced by General Motors in 1981 to monitor vehicle emission control systems. When the car's computer system noticed a fault in emission controls, it set off a warning light on the dashboard, adjusted a code in the computer for subsequent retrieval in the garage.
Installation of OBD became compulsory in California in 1986.
Under clean air legislation, all models sold in the US from 1996 were required to be equipped with a new version of OBD, OBD II.
OBD II standardized the system and improved many of the glitches. It also increased it's monitoring scope to cover almost everything possible in the car which can go wrong. When the car is taken to the garage, the codes on the computer are down-loaded and the faults checked.