The History Automotive Diagnostic Sytems & OBD Overview/History…

Who is this article for?

Anyone who owns a vehicle knows that there is a fair amount of work that goes into the upkeep and maintenance of that vehicle to keep it running smoothly.
In the modern day however, this is becoming more and more reliant on computers, which control many of the functions of the vehicle – both inside and outside of the car.

As with any computer, faults can arise and this will often lead to faults further down the line, such as within a fuel injector, or maybe the aircon unit. To find and fix these faults, we rely on diagnostics to read the computer, and find where the problem may lie, and in the more advanced diagnostic machines, suggest ways of fixing this.

It does get more in depth than this too though, from programming keys to aligning wheels on a car.


So, this guide will help you not only to find the right machine for what you need,

But for those looking to have their car serviced – to assist in choosing the right diagnostic expert for exactly what you need.

History of Automotive Diagnostics

Firstly, it needs to be said that since the very first diagnostics were used, the principles have changed only slightly:

  • Firstly: Systems have always failed or needed improvement, and we have always needed to know why and how to make them better,


  • Secondly: Technology is always evolving, so the best machines are the ones that allow you to stay up-to-date with the times.

Before the 1950’s came along and before technology shot forward at an incredible rate, most automotive diagnostics were done by plain old “hands on” work. You jumped into the vehicle and took it for a drive. You felt, listened to and smelled where the fault was, and then hoped that your hunch was right. 

In the 1960’s, there was a new era that arose where the gauges and sensors in a vehicle were far more accurate, allowing you as the mechanic to know that the strange smell was indeed an overheating issue. 

As time went on, more and more technology took over, and it was in 1969 that first mass-produced vehicles came onto the market with OBD-type systems as a standard, thanks to Volkswagen and their Jetronic system requiring a method to read the data. Fast forward to the mid 1980’s where we see OBD1 vehicles becoming the norm. 

This posed a problem for people working on vehicles, however, as they were required to not only have a range of different cables and connectors, but to also have a large number of very basic machines for different makes of vehicles, which ultimately were not that accurate.

The next significant shift we see is the move towards more strict emissions regulations in California in the USA, which resulted in a need for a standardised method of reading data from a vehicle. This was also emphasised after Bosch developed the Lambda sensor, which fitted more closely to the evolving need for smarter sensors – since more and more places were adopting emission controls similar to that of California.

Welcome to the (modern) world of OBD2! This is where we sit today, but from its beginnings in 1996 up till now, we have seen a marked improvement in what can be diagnosed, changed, repaired and studied by the not-so-humble diagnostic machine.

Now comes the big shift – what vehicle computers can do, and as a result, what diagnostic machines need to do. When Volkswagen brought out their first computerised systems, they were used to control fuel injection in their Type III (the 1600 LE & TLE in America and other countries) model. While it was very simple technology, it showed the power of computer-based diagnostics and control within vehicles. Since then, the number of components in a vehicle has skyrocketed – from controlling the engine functions, to being able to find faults in an electric window. In short – from a single injection module in the 1960’s, the average vehicle now has between 20 and 150 ECU modules.

The evolution of diagnostics continues today, with systems like the ADAS system which offers unparalleled support for technicians. This technology can not only be used to help with repairing vehicle damage for panel beaters and glass fitters, but also for calibrating driver aids such as self-driven vehicles, parking assist functions and much more. Coupled with both online and offline coding functions of the latest diagnostic machines, the future of automotive diagnostics is all around us.

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