OBD2: A Brief Intro to Onboard Diagnostics II

Have you ever noticed a spot in your car that looks like something plugs in there? If you’ve wondered what that’s for, its primary use is for OBD or On-board Diagnostic tools. OBD is a vehicle’s self-diagnosing system that gives you information on the status of your car. When a check engine light or a service vehicle soon light comes on in your dashboard, you should be able to use OBD to find the problem. When a proper tool is plugged into an OBD equipped car, it communicates with the Engine Control Unit (ECU) and provides valuable troubleshooting information. OBD has taken a few different forms over the years since its introduction in the 1980s. Let’s see how OBD has changed and how you can put the information it provides to good use.

OBD2: A Universal Standardized System for Vehicle Emmission Control

onboard diagnostics system components
The operation diagram of onboard diagnostics system

OBD2 is a vehicle’s self-diagnosing system that gives you information on the status of your car. Introduced in the mid-1990s, OBD-II is still the automotive industry standard today. It’s far more sophisticated and standardized than OBD-I. It gave us a universal connector that’s the same in every car sold in the US since 1996, making it much easier for motorists and technicians to read DTC’s. Instead of needing special tools for different manufacturers, all you need now is a universal OBD2 scanner. OBDII has a much more comprehensive range of DTC’s than OBD-I that allows us to find more information about what’s wrong with a car, simplifying the diagnosing and repairing process.

OBD2 trouble codes contain a letter followed by four numbers. Different letters indicate different types of issues.

  • Pxxx indicates a powertrain issue,
  • Bxxx means body,
  • Cxxx means chassis,
  • and Uxxx means there’s a network issue.

After the letter, the four-digit number specifies what’s wrong with that part of the vehicle.

How is OBD2 Applied?

how is OBD2 applied
These are ways that OBD2 can be applied, from handheld tools to emission testing

Several consumer and professional diagnostic tools can be used to read OBD2. They range from handheld tools with a screen the size of a few digits to tools the size of large tablets that provide all of the detailed information you could ask for on your car.

1. Hand-Held Scan Tools

These are the most common OBD2 readers. They’re the ones you’ll find the most readily available for anyone to purchase. They’re also usually the ones that parts stores use when they give you a quick, free diagnostic scan. You can get the most basic ones that give you your five-digit DTC or a more advanced scanner that can give you more details. The basic ones can read just about anything except for Antilock Brake System (ABS) issues. Only the more advanced, expensive scanners can diagnose ABS problems in detail. Top of the line models can even graph data about your car right on the screen.

2. Mobile Device-Based Tools

Mobile scanners essentially serve the same purpose as traditional handheld scanners. The difference is you can read the information on a mobile device like a smartphone or a tablet. These usually connect to OBD2 links via USB, but some are available with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi transmitters for wireless connection. Just download the proper application on your device, plug in the transmitter to your car, and you’ll be ready to scan.

3. PC-Based Scan Tools

These are potent tools for serious business. PC-based scan tools usually use a USB interface to connect a car to a PC or Mac. This PC-Based type has many advantages over handheld tools like a full and easy to read display, storage for saving data, and the flexibility to use multiple software programs, which are all you need if you’re consistently logging data. It’s by far the easiest way to work with OBD2 data and keep it saved in one place. These are most often used by professionals but are also available to anyone.

4. Data Loggers

Data loggers are not so much for diagnosing problems as they are for recording driving information. While they can be used for diagnosis by recording engine data under normal use, they’re becoming very popular with insurance companies. They’re commonly used as a form of auto insurance risk selection. Customers can sign up for a program where the insurance company sends them a data logger. The customer keeps it plugged into the car being insured. The driving data is analyzed to assess the driver and the car’s risk level, obtained by monitoring things like speed and times of day that the car is driven. Some are even equipped with built-in accelerometers to measure how hard the driver brakes. After it’s plugged in for the specified time, the data logger is sent back to the insurance company. Depending on the data that’s logged, drivers can be eligible for insurance discounts.

5. Emission Testing

Emission testing and maintenance are two of the original purposes of onboard vehicle diagnostics. OBD2 is an easier and more convenient way to test emissions rather than at the tailpipe. Many states with mandatory emissions testing have switched to OBD2. All OBD-II equipped vehicles have codes to indicate issues with the emissions system and can easily confirm if it complies with emissions laws. OBD-II is an excellent example of modern technology benefiting the environment.


Onboard Diagnostics have been a big step forward for cars. It’s easier than ever to troubleshoot and diagnose problems with cars, trucks, and SUVs. Rather than clumsy, sometimes inaccurate mechanical tests to find problems, it’s much easier, cheaper, more accurate, and safer to plug a scanner into the car and let it tell you what’s wrong. It’s also helping keep cars emitting clean emissions and even giving good drivers insurance discounts. OBD has made life easier for motorists and technicians alike.

Read More: What is the Difference Between OBDI and OBDII?

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