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What kind of vehicle are you thinking of running diagnostics on? The newer vehicles have a port, where mechanics can plug into, which will diagnose the problems, and inform of poor operation related to specific functions. Manufacturers install their own set of on-board processors, which speak their own language, so to speak. Understanding the specific logic of the exclusive on board processor is the key to the issue. The logic may vary, from manufacturer and model. I think the decoding is left to the hackers, or mechanics who divulge this information. Of course, you can understand that the specific manufacturers don't want just anyone to have access to the information that is provided by the on board processor. It boils down to another marketing tactic.
There are some sites on the internet, which describe of interfacing with specific vehicle models. Hopefully, you can find a site which pertains to your model?
Look for OBD-II diagnostics. There is a company around that markets a small pic programmed to translated the onboard diagnostics to rs 232 format. (ELM and then some more)
You'll need a reasonably new car to be able to use this (1996- now)
My girlfriends Nissan Sentra has an On board dignostics processor that you really don't need any interface for. If there is something wrong, the OBD blinks an LED in a certain pattern, then you can match the pattern with a listing in the maintenance manual. The listing will provide pretty specific issues.
I know that most foreign vehicles are now running these OBD processors.
A slightly seperate issue:
Do you folks know of an equivalent to these ELM320 & ELM322 IC's?