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Scott Suter (seated) and James Pounds, both automotive mechanics in Omaha, Neb., use a Rotunda scanner from Ford Motor Co. to diagnose the reason behind a “check engine” light on a police squad car. Photo: City of Omaha
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Jack Stucky says it's a real challenge to keep the diagnostic tools for his fleet of 460 vehicles in Missoula, Mont., up-to-date. Instead of using manual, mechanical testing methods, today's cars, trucks, and heavy equipment require computerized troubleshooting.

Since the software for those tools is proprietary to each manufacturer, having to constantly update it gets very expensive. The software for a scanning tool, for example, runs from $1500 to $7000. “If we bought every electronic tool out there, we'd end up with a room full of computerized diagnostic equipment,” says Stucky, the city's maintenance superintendent.

He's found solutions, though. One is to share diagnostic equipment with other cities. “I even borrow scan tools from some private garages, and they borrow mine,” says Stucky.

Another answer: write the diagnostic software and updates into bid specifications. That's what Dave North, equipment service manager for Omaha, Neb., does. That way you get software as part of the vehicle's purchase price. “If we buy Ford F-250 pickups, every year we get an update,” says North.

Major manufacturers such as International, Sterling, and Ford are increasingly placing their diagnostic software and parts manuals on CD so the information can be downloaded onto a customer's computer. Such information also may be available online.

Omaha maintains a special diagnostic computer at its central shop, accessible to all technicians, that has a Mitchell automotive repair manual on it, plus software from International, Sterling, Ford, and Chevrolet. That computer also has a Web link to the public library, which subscribes to other repair manuals the city needs.

Software updates for Snap On Tool diagnostic scanning tools come out twice a year. Different cartridges for the scanner allow you to diagnose cars from various manufacturers—Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, and others. A recent Snap On update cost Omaha $1800 to cover a series of various domestic cars, for example, says North.

Denver budgets $15,000 every year for diagnostic software, says Ernie Ivy, manager of operations, fleet maintenance division. The city maintains about 2000 pieces of rolling stock and equipment. Software for trucks is more expensive than for cars, says Ivy.

All four top managers in Denver's Fleet Maintenance Division make it a habit to read—and search—trade publications and the Internet for information that keeps them current with today's technology. Ivy says the four managers in the Fleet Maintenance Division, headed up by director Robert Castaneda, read and pass articles down to the fleet supervisors, who also do their own reading.

Keeping your shop up-to-date is not that difficult, but it does take time and money. And remember, if you want something from a vendor, write it into your bid specs!

— Daniel C. Brown is a free-lance writer in Des Plaines, Ill.