Advanced Vehicle Technology Has Killed the Dashlight as a Diagnostic Tool in Collision Repair

Advanced Vehicle Technology Has Killed the Dashlight as a Diagnostic Tool in Collision Repair

The proper phrase when performing repairs today is, “If there is no light, it does not mean it’s right.”

We all like to sit around and discuss old times. We fondly remember people or mentors who taught us how to repair vehicles. We talk about tales of John Deere tractors and an oak tree for straightening a vehicle. A come-along and a big pole in the shop were trusted tools. An oxyacetylene torch could fix anything that was bent or mashed. We remember back when we could do this or repair that on a crashed vehicle, a trip down memory lane to the glory days when vehicles were engineered simply and the electronics were simple too. Our jobs seemed so much easier then.

In the evolution of change, we lost another simple guide to repairing vehicles: our dear friend, the dashlight. He was also called the trouble light. He was the check-engine light. He even had friends such as the SRS light, oil and ABS light.

We loved these lights. We would start the vehicle and these symbols would illuminate, letting us know they were there. They would then go dark, assuring us that all was well. If a light came on as we were driving down the road, we would get a sick feeling deep down as we knew something bad was about to happen. We would bring the vehicle in for service and, like being at the doctor, wait for the results.


Advanced technology, especially in auto electronics, has changed over the years. The dashlight is still there, but how it’s used and what it tells us have changed. It is still a warning light indicating that there are serious issues, but it does not light for every issue. In the past, people thought that as long as there was no dashlight, everything must be OK. Unfortunately, many people still believe that, and that’s where the death occurred. It is an undying trust that the dashlight or information center is the indicator of all vehicle problems. The proper phrase today is, “If there is no light, it does not mean it’s right.”

A vehicle can have many critical issues and not set a diagnostic trouble code or DTC. Therefore, we must use scan tools to find the problem. We need to search and find the fault codes set in the computer and address them, even if there is no light illuminating the dash.

Even public perception of the dreaded dashlight has changed. In the past, if your check-engine light came on, you stopped immediately and called for help. Today, unless the engine drops right out of the bottom of your vehicle, people ignore the light. The belief is that it’s the dreaded gas cap issue or a rusted O2 sensor. These don’t usually cause any problems, but have made us less sensitive to the warning.


This leads us to today’s repairs and the need to do pre- and post-repair scans. There are so many computers and control modules in vehicles that it’s usually not one code set in a vehicle but multiple codes. The vehicle’s electrical systems are interconnected to the point where a problem in one control module cascades to other electronics in the vehicle. A person bringing in a vehicle for one problem may find, through a proper scan, that that problem is a symptom of other issues. Once the control module issue is addressed and/or replaced, the original problem plus many unknown existing problems will have been repaired.

For body shops, this is a serious concern. In the past, after a collision, codes would be cleared or DTCs currently stored in the computer such as airbag codes would be erased. Once cleared (and some of you remember using a paperclip to clear airbag codes in certain vehicles), the vehicle would be test-driven around the block. As long as no dashlights were illuminated, the vehicle was thought to be repaired.

A few weeks later, the vehicle would come back with an unhappy owner. Something was wrong. We would connect a scan tool and find a number of DTCs or codes. The battle then began. When were problems starting? Were these pre-accident or from the crash? No matter how it worked out, someone paid more money to complete the repair and a customer was not happy with the repairs or repair process.

Folks, we all lose on that one. Doing a pre-scan and following with a post-scan is recommended on many vehicles. There is so much in electronics that can be affected by just everyday driving. By having both scans, we can determine a prior problem in the vehicle.

We’ve all heard, “It was not like that before.” A test drive must be completed to vehicle manufacturer specifications as to distance and speeds, along with stops as required. This will help to determine if a problem still exists and what to do about it. Be aware that some of these test drives may take up to 50 miles and require highway speeds.

Scan Tools

The complex electronics today have required us to look for more advanced scan tools. A scan tool that’s five years old and has not been updated is probably not going to help on a new vehicle. Even with updates, it may not be able to read new vehicles’ computers.

Vehicle manufacturers are adding new control modules and computers to vehicles. Lane-departure warning, auto emergency braking, and advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) features are increasing every day. Can your scan tool communicate to all the new modules and computers? It may be able to scan some control modules, but can it tell you what modules it can’t see during the scan? What do I do as a shop? How much is this going to cost? There is no easy answer or a one-size-fits-all solution.

No Dashlight

I still hear the argument, “There was no dashlight on.” Please understand this is not an indicator for all problems. Educating yourself on what needs to be done for vehicles today and tomorrow is a must.

I-CAR has new live and online classes to help you educate collision managers and estimators as well as technicians. The days of, “I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years,” are gone. Shops must seek training and research equipment to be able to work on new cars. Once you have the training and background, start looking into what you need to do or, if desired, purchase. I don’t think that this trend and the equipment needed will be cheap for shops. You’ll spend a lot of time researching and evaluating all aspects, and it will be frustrating for many.


Research procedures needed to complete repairs on vehicles you’re working on. Develop a plan as to what your shop needs. What is your main repair focus? Domestic or foreign? What percentages of your repairs are on vehicles that are new or more than one to two years old or older? What is your demographic as far as your proximity to dealers that can service your needs? What is your budget? Prepare customers by letting them know that no matter which way your shop proceeds, significant miles may be put on their vehicle for any process.

In-house. This is probably the most expensive route, as purchasing equipment will be a major investment. If you repair a low percentage of new cars (vehicles produced less than 12 months ago), there are some great aftermarket options. Not all aftermarket tools will be able to recalibrate sensors and/or cameras and lasers. Know what needs to be completed for each vehicle and be prepared to do all that’s required. There are companies that offer services in-house through the internet. Currently, many of these companies still leave many problems to repair or may not be able to do recalibrations or test drives. Some markets do have people to go to shops. Research your options.

Mobile: A company will complete scans and recalibrations if needed at your facility. This option may require you to give them space in the shop to complete the procedure. Lighting and environment will be issues. Not all procedures are just a scan. Many vehicles will require recalibrations of sensors, which may require targets or long test drives. Be aware of what’s needed to complete repairs.

Dealer. This option limits how much equipment you have to buy, but transporting and time lost at the dealership are large considerations. How far it is to a dealer is also a consideration.

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