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A scan tool is an invaluable aid to vehicle diagnostics, but you
may need to rely on other methods as well when vital information
is either missing or incomplete. A solid understanding of
vehicle electronics is indispensible in these situations.
38 April 2011
he phrase “no-code drive- from a vehicle and the technician has an-
ability” can send shivering alyzed it, the circuit or circuits in ques-
fear clear through a tech- tion must be checked. This can be ac-
nician, and intermittent complished with a digital volt-ohmmeter
no-code driveability is (DVOM), logic probe or oscilloscope.
even worse. A technician Due to the speed with which modern
can hope the symptoms of the problem electronic systems operate, a DVOM or
are indicative of a pattern failure, but logic probe are very poor choices for this
what if they’re not? Even with known task. These tools are severely limited by
symptoms and codes, it may be another their actuation speed and their inability
problem that appears to be the same but to show the technician the actual
is not. The question is: How does one changes that are occurring in the circuit.
troubleshoot either coded or no-code For troubleshooting electronic systems
driveability problems? in modern vehicles, the tool of choice is a
The diagnostic process is actually very clear one—the oscilloscope.
very similar for both types of problems. It’s important to understand what the
The first step is to connect a scan tool to oscilloscope is displaying. Voltage
check for both existing codes and pend- changes over time represent what’s oc-
ing codes. Once this is done, Parameter curring in the circuit or system under
Identification Data (PIDs) must be col- diagnosis and to which you’re connect-
lected during a test drive, if the vehicle ed. To properly understand what the os-
is driveable, and then analyzed. An in- cilloscope is displaying, you’ll need to
depth understanding of the circuits and check and understand the wiring
systems involved is needed to under- schematic for the system.
stand what the data is conveying. It will In many wiring schematics, electron-
be necessary to check a wiring schemat- ic devices may be shown as empty boxes
ic in order to know which sensors and and may even show some of the wiring
actuators are part of the system. without proper labels. This is where an
Not all data is always shown on a scan understanding of basic electronics is vi-
tool; many times sensors and actuators tal to understanding what the circuit is
that are part of the system being diag- designed to do.
nosed are not listed as PIDs. This We’ll start with a basic voltage divider
means that the possible cause of a prob- circuit known as the engine coolant tem-
lem may not be seen on the scan tool at perature (ECT) sensor circuit (Fig. 1 on
all. Also, if the microprocessor is con- page 40). This device can be used for
fused in any way, the data it gives to the any basic temperature-sensing circuit. In
scan tool will be incorrect. diagram A, it cannot be determined how
Yet another concern is the inability of this device would function due to the in-
the scan tool to provide the technician completeness of the circuit as drawn. It
with live data, so there’s always a delay will be necessary to complete the circuit
in all data communications from the (diagram B) so the function of this de-
scan tool. Therefore, if the problem oc- vice can be understood.
Photoillustration: Harold A. Perry; images: Thinkstock

curs quickly it may be missed, and the The ECT sensor is a variable resistor
scan tool will not be able to provide this that changes with temperature. It can
information to the technician at all. be constructed in several configura-
One of the keys to successful trou- tions. In some early fuel injection sys-
bleshooting of vehicles is having an un- tems in use during the ’60s and ’70s, a
derstanding of a scan tool’s limitations. high-temperature nickel or nichrome
Unfortunately, many technicians believe wire sealed in epoxy was used. As this
that a scan tool always conveys the cor- nickel wire sensing element takes on
rect data. This could not be further from heat from the engine coolant, the resis-
the truth, and is one of the reasons multi- tance of the nickel wire increases. This
ple parts may be replaced on a vehicle in type of sensing element is referred to as
an attempt to repair a problem. What’s a positive temperature coefficient ther-
needed is a sound understanding of the mistor, or PTC thermistor. As the resis-
tools, circuits and systems involved in tance in the nickel wire increases, the
successfully diagnosing a problem. voltage also increases. So a cold engine
Once a scan tool has acquired the data will have a low voltage reading and a hot

April 2011 39
engine will have a high voltage reading.
In later fuel injection systems, the

Photo, illustrations & waveforms: Bernie Thompson

newer thermistors are made of a semi-
conductor material. This usually ceram-
ic- or polymer-based material is doped
with a sintered mixture of metal oxides,
so when the material takes on heat from
the liquid coolant, the resistance of the
thermistor decreases. This type of sens-
ing element is referred to as a negative
temperature coefficient thermistor, or
NTC thermistor. For example, the ther-
mistor’s resistance at -40°F will read ap-
proximately 100,700 ohms, and as the
thermistor is heated to approximately
70°F it will have a resistance of approxi-
mately 3400 ohms. As the thermistor
continues to take on heat to approxi- Troubleshooting electronic circuits in modern vehicles can be accomplished
mately 210°F, the resistance will be ap- with (l. to r.) a logic probe, DVOM or oscilloscope. Because a logic probe and
proximately 185 ohms. Note: This resis- DVOM have speed limitations, the oscilloscope is the best choice.
tance varies among manufacturers.
In the ECT sensor circuit, the ther- across the thermistor but the voltage When the thermistor is cold, it has a
mistor is put into a series circuit that’s drop from the ECM’s ground as well. In resistance of about 100,000 ohms, and
supplied voltage from a voltage regulator later model injection systems, a redun- the fixed resistor within the ECM has a
located inside the engine control mod- dant ground is wired back to the ECM. resistance of 1300 to 3500 ohms, depend-
ule. This supplied voltage can be 5, 8 or If the ECM’s grounds experience a volt- ing on the manufacturer. In this condi-
9 volts, but is most commonly 5 volts. age drop, the voltage drop of the ther- tion, the thermistor, having a large resis-
The regulator supplies voltage to one mistor that’s read by the A/D converter tance, will consume most of the voltage.
end of a fixed resistor located within the will not be affected. Thus, this two-wire Therefore, the voltage reading between
ECM. The other end of the fixed resistor configuration is more robust. the resistors will be about 4.8 volts.
is connected to the thermistor. The ther- The ECT sensor circuit configuration When the thermistor is hot, its resis-
mistor can be grounded through the is referred to as a voltage divider. As the tance decreases to about 200 ohms, and
ECT housing (one-wire sensor) or wired thermistor takes on more heat from the the fixed resistor within the ECM has a
with a redundant ground back to the liquid coolant, its resistance decreases, resistance of about 2200 ohms. In this
ECM (two-wire sensor). causing the voltage between the fixed condition, the fixed resistor within the
In earlier applications a single-wire resistor and the thermistor to change. In ECM being a large resistance will con-
ECT is common. However, if the a voltage divider circuit, two resistors are sume most of the voltage. Therefore,
ECM’s ground becomes affected by re- wired in series. The larger resistor will the voltage reading between the resis-
sistance, an analog-to-digital converter consume more voltage and the smaller tors will be about .42 volt.
will read not only the voltage drop resistor will consume less voltage. The output of this circuit (Fig. 2) can


5V Reg.
1 1


2 2

Fig 1. Vehicle circuit diagrams may provide an incomplete or partial view of what’s going on inside various electronic modules.

40 April 2011

45°F Start 200°F

45°F Start



Fig 2. The engine coolant temperature (ECT) sensor waveforms above were taken from two different types of ECT volt-
age divider circuits. The waveform on the left shows a basic ECT divider circuit, the other an ECT pull-up divider circuit. In
a pull-up circuit, once the engine has obtained a set coolant temperature at warm-up, the resistance is switched inside
the PCM. This allows for higher resolution in the ECT signal during the time the engine goes from warm to hot.
be predicted when an oscilloscope is in- which is accomplished by an operational the amplified signal from the output to
stalled. Voltage divider circuits are used amplifier. The op amp works with two the inverting input (Fig. 4 on page 44).
throughout the vehicle’s electronic cir- inputs that are connected to the nonin- This will reduce the amplitude of the
cuits, so it becomes very important to verting (⫹) and inverting (⫺) terminals. output signal and thus the gain. The
understand this type of circuit. When the two input potentials are equal smaller the resistor, the lower the gain
Now let’s look at a basic pull-down to one another, there is no output from produced from the op amp. If there’s
circuit that can be used as a camshaft the amplifier. As the positive and nega- no resistor installed in the feedback cir-
(CMP) or crankshaft (CKP) sensor cir- tive inputs start to have a potential dif- cuit, the op amp will work as a follower.
cuit (Fig. 3). In diagram A, it cannot be ference between them, there will be an The op amp gain is independent from
determined how this device would output produced by the amplifier. This the supply voltage and can be from sev-
function because it’s incomplete as output polarity will be based on the in- eral times to many thousands of times
drawn. It will be necessary to complete verting (⫺) input signal; the polarity of a greater than the supply. When the op
the circuit (diagram B) so the function signal applied to the inverting input is amp does not have a feedback circuit, it’s
of this device can be understood. reversed at the output of the op amp. said to be in open-loop mode. When in
The Hall effect element puts out an The greater the difference between the open-loop mode, a very small potential
analog voltage of about 30 microvolts positive and negative inputs, the greater difference between positive and negative
when a magnetic field penetrates it. the gain, or output, from the amplifier. will create an output of maximum gain.
With this very low-voltage output, the This amplification is determined by a Therefore, open-loop mode is not practi-
Hall effect signal must be amplified, feedback resistor that feeds a portion of cal for linear amplification, but is used as

ECM Crankshaft Position Sensor ECM Crankshaft Position Sensor

Schmitt Trigger Op
1 5V 1 Amp

2 2 ⫹

3 3

Hall Effect Sensor

A Microprocessor B
Fig 3. Diagram A on the left is all you may have to go on when consulting a circuit diagram. Diagram B on the right pro-
vides a clearer explanation of the relationships among the components and their internal components.

42 April 2011
a comparator since it compares one in- lector output; this type of transistor is flow. The transistor leg with the arrow is
put voltage to the other input voltage. turned on when its base is pulled low rel- the emitter and is always connected to
Many electronic circuits on the vehicle ative to the emitter. This transistor is the higher potential in the circuit. For an
are amplified by an op amp and can be used to control a power output, say, 12 easy way to remember which transistor
configured as a noninverting amp, an in- volts. In Fig. 5, notice the arrow in dia- this is, think arrow “pointing in”—PNP.
verting amp, a differential amp, a com- gram A. It shows the direction of current An NPN transistor consists of a layer
parator and follower or a buffer. for the conventional theory of current of P-doped semiconductor between two
In the configuration shown in dia-
gram B in Fig. 3, the operational ampli-
fier is in open-loop mode. Therefore, a
very small potential difference between
positive and negative will allow the volt-
age to swing from full off to full on. It
will be necessary to feed this voltage to
a circuit that will make sure a retrigger
will not occur within the circuit. This is
accomplished by the Schmitt trigger. As
the voltage from the op amp increases,
it reaches a turn-on threshold, or oper-
ating point. At this operating point, the
Schmitt trigger changes states, allowing
a digital voltage signal to be sent out.
This signal is applied to the base of a
A bipolar transistor is a three-termi-
nal semiconductor device. Its three ter-
minals are referred to as the base, col-
lector and emitter. A small command
current at the base can control a much
larger current flowing between the col-
lector and emitter. This allows the tran-
sistor to work as an amplifier or switch.
If the base voltage is modulated, the
transistor works as an amplifier. If the
base voltage is fully saturated, the tran-
sistor works as a switch. The type of
transistor used will determine how the
circuit will operate.
There are two basic classifications of
the bipolar transistor, based on the
semiconductor doping within the tran-
sistor itself—positive-negative-positive
(PNP), and negative-positive-negative
(NPN), as illustrated in Fig. 5 on page
44. The P-type semiconductor junction
is made with pure silicone that’s doped
with boron which does not have a
fourth valence electron, creating “bro-
ken bonds,” or holes. The N-type semi-
conductor junction is made with pure
silicone that’s doped with phosphorus,
which adds valence electrons.
A PNP transistor consists of a layer of
N-doped semiconductor material sand-
wiched between two layers of P-doped
semiconductor material. A small current
leaving the base is amplified in the col-
Circle #24

April 2011 43

Feedback Circuit PNP NPN


⫺ E C
V In
Op Amp
V Out C E


Fig 4. Operational amplifier circuit design. Fig 5. Basic transistor circuit designs.

layers of N-doped semiconductor mate- In diagram B in Fig. 3, the transistor now counts the edges from the sensor,
rial. A small current entering the base is is an NPN type, which will ground the and compares this count against a clock
amplified in the collector output; this circuit. A voltage regulator in the ECM to determine CKP angular position and
type of transistor is turned on when its supplies voltage to one side of a fixed angular velocity. Now that we have a
base is pulled high relative to the emit- resistor; the other side of the fixed resis- proper understanding of the circuit,
ter. This transistor is used to control a tor is connected to the NPN transistor when the oscilloscope is attached the
ground or sync power. In diagram B in in the CKP sensor. When the NPN normal output (Fig. 6) can be anticipat-
Fig. 5, notice the direction of the arrow, transistor base voltage goes high it’s ed. This type of pull-down circuit is by
which shows the direction of current for turned on, thus pulling the circuit to far the most common used in vehicle
the conventional theory of current flow. ground. When the NPN transistor base electronic systems.
The transistor leg with the arrow is the voltage goes low it’s turned off, opening However, if a PNP transistor was
emitter and is always connected to the the circuit so source voltage is present. used instead of an NPN transistor, the
lower potential in the circuit. An easy This turning on and off produces a CKP sensor would send the voltage out
way to remember which transistor this high-low/high-low digital voltage signal of the sensor (pull-up circuit). The
is, think arrow “not pointing in”—NPN. output from the CKP sensor. The ECM ECM signal circuit would also change;

Camshaft Signal Good Camshaft Signal Failing

Fig 6. In the waveforms above, a crankshaft position sensor (CKP, shown in red) and a camshaft position sensor (CMP,
green) from a 2001 Dodge 2.7L engine are shown. This is a pull-down circuit that uses an NPN transistor. This means that the
sensor is holding its signal and then releasing it, so we know that source voltage from the ECM is present. The right-hand
waveform shows the green signal failed to return to ground. At this point you know the control unit and the circuit are good
because voltage is present at the sensor signal wire. The problem is in the sensor, sensor ground or trigger wheel. In this
case, the trigger wheel was bent, causing an intermittent problem, where the signal had one pulse missing every 30 minutes.

44 April 2011
it would no longer supply voltage to the sensor from the circuit. If voltage is now Now watch the oscilloscope to see if
sensor signal circuit, but instead would present, check the sensor’s power and the voltage changed to make a digital
receive the digital output voltage from ground. If these are good, check the signal. If the signal is now present,
the CKP sensor and count the edges trigger wheel condition and make sure check the sensor signal wire at the
from this signal. When diagnosing these it’s turning, then replace the sensor. If ECM to check for an open wire be-
sensors, it’s very important to realize there’s no voltage on the signal wire tween the sensor and ECM. If the sig-
which sensor type is used—a pull-down when the sensor is unplugged, take a nal did not change, this could be an out-
circuit or a pull-up circuit. signal generator with an analog voltage put-style sensor that has no output;
If a signal is being produced, a quick and connect it to the unplugged signal check the power and ground at the sen-
way to determine which circuit is being wire. If voltage is now present on the sor. If they’re good, check the trigger
used is to unplug the sensor and check signal wire, the signal wire is not wheel and replace the sensor. If multi-
the harness-side signal voltage. If the grounded. If no voltage is present on ple sensors have been installed but keep
signal wire has voltage, it’s a grounding the signal wire, unplug the ECM from failing, suspect a short circuit between
circuit; if the signal wire does not have the circuit. If voltage is now present, the the sensor signal and a power circuit.
voltage, it’s an output circuit. ECM is pulling the signal circuit down. It’s hard to imagine life without a
If a signal is not being produced and Make sure all the power supplies and scan tool. But when that trusted friend
there’s no signal voltage present, several grounds are good at the ECM before re- can’t give you the answers you need,
possibilities exist: The ECM is not sup- placing the module, because a power or possessing an understanding of vehicle
plying the signal voltage, the signal cir- ground problem can cause the ECM to electronics, typical circuits and compo-
cuit is open, the signal circuit is shorted pull this circuit down. If the voltage nents, coupled with the ability to use
to ground, the sensor is pulling the sig- from the sensor simulator is still not pres- the appropriate diagnostic equipment,
nal to ground, the sensor is an output ent with the ECM unplugged, the signal can prove equally valuable.
type that’s not producing a signal or the wire is grounded. If the sensor is un-
trigger wheel is not turning. If the cir- plugged and the signal wire has the sen-
This article can be found online at
cuit type is unknown and there’s no sor simulator voltage on it, plug the sen-
voltage on the signal wire, unplug the sor back in and crank the engine over.

Circle #25

April 2011 45