As new vehicles’ onboard modules continue to proliferate, vehicle service contract administrators are taking proactive steps to reduce the time and money programming requires.  - Photo via iStock 

As new vehicles’ onboard modules continue to proliferate, vehicle service contract administrators are taking proactive steps to reduce the time and money programming requires. 

Photo via iStock 

One of the stories I tell people when they ask how our company got started is about how difficult it was to fix cars. Selling parts as opposed to doing the actual repair seemed so much easier 25 years ago. Well, time has caught up to me, and now it seems as though we in the parts business have to be as technical as the people doing the actual repair.

As vehicles get more sophisticated and increasingly have numerous onboard modules, programming these modules is becoming a hurdle for independent repair facilities and in turn for vehicle service contract administrators. Many repairs — even seemingly routine repairs, such as certain struts and steering racks — now require programming. 

Programming Incomplete

Vehicles must be towed to dealerships for programming either because they will not start or the newly installed part will be damaged if the vehicle is driven before programming is completed. To complete the repair, the shop must have special equipment, hire a mobile programming service, or tow the vehicle to a dealership.

Module programming can be accomplished with factory scan tools or with a laptop computer and the required OEM software and subscriptions connected to a J2534 pass-through device. J2534 is a universal protocol adopted in 2004, requiring all manufacturers to allow vehicles sold in the US and Europe to accept module programming through the same interface. Some manufacturers, such as Fiat Chrysler, require an additional proprietary device to be able to program all modules and all years of vehicles. 

Many independent repair facilities are reluctant to jump into the programming business due to the significant startup expense, which can be tens of thousands of dollars, including hardware and software. In addition, many repair facility owners and technicians are nervous about learning a new technology-based skill, and certain types of programming requires the programmer to be a licensed locksmith.

Providers and Programmers

This need for programming brings up a number of questions and issues for VSC administrators. For example, is the programming procedure included in the book time listed in the Mitchell or Alldata labor guide? If programming is included, the VSC should not have to pay the full book time plus a programming charge from the repair facility, a mobile programmer or a dealer. VSC adjusters must be prepared to negotiate either a reduction in hours or not covering any programming fee. In our experience, Mitchell is better at identifying whether a part needs to be programmed upon installation and whether the programming procedure is included in book time.

VSC administrators should also be aware that some recycled parts, such as Mercedes-Benz’s seven-speed valve bodies, cannot be successfully installed because they cannot be reprogrammed in the field. If a vehicle must be towed to a dealership for programming, VSC administrators must establish a policy on whether to cover the towing fee. 

One option is to take the position that it is the shop’s responsibility to be able to complete the repair with no extra charges. Using mobile programmers is a great way to help ensure that programming is done properly and on a timely basis. Good mobile programmers have a level of experience and expertise that can only be gathered by programming full-time, and many possess all of the software and equipment needed to program most makes and modules. 

Same- or next-day appointments should be available, saving time versus relying on the schedules of a towing company and a dealership. One possibility for VSCs is to develop their own network of mobile programmers to avoid surprises from repair facilities.

Given that module programming is required in an increasing percentage of repairs, VSC administrators must address the questions and issues that arise and take a proactive approach to avoid spending extra money and time on repairs.