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June 15, 2014

Quick as a flash, your car's been updated

“I just called my dealer to make an appointment for my transmission, which shifts a bit oddly sometimes. The service person told me “we have a flash for this” and that I could bring in the next day. What in the world is a flash?”

“Reflashing” is a term used in the auto industry for erasing and reprogramming a vehicle’s powertrain or other control module’s operating instructions. It’s very similar to an electronic update to your smartphone or computer. A new set of instructions may fix a variety of issues, such as engine performance or transmission hiccups, an emissions concern, balky power windows or awkward voice recognition. Even though great planning goes into a vehicle system during development, additional information becomes available regarding real-world operating conditions, wear and tear, and consumer feedback, making enhancements appreciated.

Reflashing requires a manufacturer-specified scan tool or a pass-through device, a PC and an Internet connection. While mostly performed on 1996 and newer vehicles at the dealer, heads-up independent shops may also provide the service. In the event an important flash is required, vehicle owners should be notified by the manufacturer. Minor issues and enhancements might be addressed on an as-needed basis, if a correction exists.

It’s important to remember reprogramming is not a substitute for a mechanical repair or maintenance service, should they be needed. In the event a reflash is recommended as an out-of-pocket maintenance service, think twice before shelling out the cash, unless specific and useful outcomes can be assured. Do-it-yourself reflashing is possible, but it’s challenging to know what is available and appropriate; you need the pricey pass-through device; and in most cases the new software must be purchased from the manufacturer.

Is it OK to install a larger battery in your truck? I worry about my parked operation of the radio sometimes leaving me stranded.

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