How to Use Your Laptop to Diagnose & Program Your Automobile

Written by joy prescott
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How to Use Your Laptop to Diagnose & Program Your Automobile
On-board diagnostic systems have become more sophisticated. (Modern leather interior of the new car image by terex from

All cars manufactured since 1996 use on-board diagnostics (OBD) to communicate. The OBD-II standard was introduced in the mid-1990s and today's cars have an OBD-II connector, typically located under the dash. Wide varieties of scanners available on the market plug into the connector and read the car's data using various automaker protocols. Some scanners just read basic signals; others show the full range of diagnostic trouble codes (DTC). Some scanners have a small interface that displays the DTC, while others work with software installed on your laptop, allowing you to diagnose and adjust your car's settings.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • OBD-II scanner with USB connector

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  1. 1

    Install any software included with the OBD-II scanner onto your laptop.

  2. 2

    Plug the USB connector on your OBD-II scanner into your laptop.

  3. 3

    Locate the OBD-II connector in your car. Most are under the dash near the driver's seat. The National OBD Clearing House has an online database showing the connector location for most cars.

  4. 4

    Plug the OBD-II scanner into the connector and view any trouble codes. Each code starts with one of the following letters: B (body), C (chassis), U (network) or P (power train). The letter is followed by four numbers that correspond to a specific error. The first number is used by the automaker for speciality codes, while the next one identifies specific problems. The final two digits indicate a subsection. For example, P0781 is a transmission problem and P0087 indicates low fuel pressure.

  5. 5

    Look up the code on the manufacturer's website or your laptop, depending on the type of scanner. Some scanner software provides diagnostic wizards that display possible scenarios for fixing problems.

  6. 6

    Use your scanner while driving the car to diagnose intermittent problems or to track engine performance over time, if supported by the scanner. For example, you could monitor mass air flow (MAF) and engine revolutions per minute (RPM) or determine if your car will pass an emissions inspection.

  7. 7

    Clear any trouble codes, when finished, and turn off any associated warning lights, such as the check engine light.

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