Tech Feature: BMW and J2534 Pass-Thru Programming

Tech Feature: BMW and J2534 Pass-Thru Programming

In the U.S., 8 percent of the cars on the road are European vehicles. OK, that doesn't sound like much, but think of it this way: an average repair yields more dollars per repair than most domestic and Asian vehicles. In most cases, each repair pays better. Plus, the vehicle owners have more invested into the vehicle, so they want to spend the money to fix their vehicle correctly. That 8 percent of cars on the road can pack a powerful punch when it comes to automotive repair shops making money.

By Peter David, Guest Writer

In the U.S., 8% of the cars on the road are European vehicles. OK, that doesn’t sound like much, but think of it this way: an average repair yields more dollars per repair than most domestic and Asian vehicles. In most cases, each repair pays better. Plus, the vehicle owners have more invested into the vehicle, so they want to spend the money to fix their vehicle correctly. That 8% of cars on the road can pack a powerful punch when it comes to automotive repair shops making money.

This leads us to how to properly tool a shop for the repair of these vehicles. There is a variety of aftermarket tools available. With the current aftermarket tools, you must remember to look at several things like, where the tool is made and how easy it is to update. Who will support the tool when things go wrong? Believe me, things will go wrong with any tool, aftermarket or OEM. So when purchasing aftermarket tools, don’t always go with the cheapest, as there’s usually a reason why it’s cheap. Go with the tool with the best support that fits the needs of the repair shop.

If the shop requires an OEM tool, the owner will need to contact the OEM directly to purchase the tool. There is, however, an exception: BMW. BMW does not offer an OEM tool for a reasonable price. Its stand-alone tool sells for in excess of $30,000 and its new system due out next year has a price tag starting at $60,000. Most shops can’t afford that kind of tooling, even though they may need it. BMW has become one of the most complex vehicles on the road to repair with up to five CANs (Controller Area Networks) in a vehicle and most components are a control module. For instance, on the newer 7 Series BMW (E65), the technician will have up to 15 modules to diagnose in order to see why the SRS light is on. Each airbag squib (or firing device) is a control module.
So how does a shop repair BMWs correctly without going into extreme debt?

Well, BMW of North America has a unique answer for this question, J2534 Pass-Thru Programming. BMW offers a subscription-based website (www.bmwtechinfo.com) where you can access a wide variety of tools to help repair shops properly service these vehicles. This site has all wiring diagrams, technical bulletins, repair information, training information, parts catalog and two applications for the use of a J2534 Pass-Thru Programming device to diagnose and program all control modules from 1997 to present. Most other OEMs offer J2534 Pass-Thru Programming, but they only offer the ability to program emissions-related control modules. BMW opened this up to the complete car. So a shop can replace an ABS or SRS control module and program it correctly to the vehicle.

In addition to programming any module in the vehicle, BMW has an online diagnostic tool that can help the technician perform a fault code test plan. With this tool, if a technician gets into trouble with a fault code, he or she can log on to BMW’s website, use an approved J2534 device and BMW’s online diagnostic tool to trace fault codes with fault code functional descriptions, wiring diagrams of the affected area and a fault code tracing to walk the technician through the test plan for the correct repair.

This setup sounds like the best thing since sliced bread, right? Well, of course with all good things we have some bad points too. For instance,

  • BMW’s website works well only with Internet Explorer 6; Internet Explorer 7 can work but not constantly and takes twice as much setup.
  • The setup is complex and can take up to five hours (this includes setting up one’s laptop and downloading all module firmware).
  • The technician must be connected to the Internet in order to do programming or online diagnostics and the process can be slow.
  • I’ve found that a dedicated laptop works the best.
  • BMW locks out Car Key Memory, which means you can’t customize keys for a vehicle.
  • The technician must do his or her homework to use this site to its capability.
  • This system works with BMW’s approved J2534 devices. Other devices can work, but not 100%.

These seemingly negative points aren’t as bad as they seem. Of all the BMW-recommended devices, look for a company that can help the repair shop with the setup and training. The sting of the bad points can be relieved with that service.

Which type of repair shop would be the best candidate for this type of tooling?

Any shop that’s tired of sending BMWs to the dealer for repairs that their tooling is not able to handle. A shop that is not able to crack the $10,000+ nut for proper tooling. Any shop that won’t be afraid to get over the learning curve of this tool. In other words, a repair shop that strives for dealer-level tooling at a very reasonable price. The J2534 devices can be sold to any shop with no tooling or as an aftermarket tool to fill all gaps. No matter what scan tool a repair shop has, these devices make a great enhancement to any existing tool.

J2534 Pass-Thru Programming is a great idea that is taken to a higher level by BMW. You might be asking yourself, why did BMW apply J2534 in the manner they did? It’s not because they’re necessarily nice guys; it’s because of the way the newer vehicles are designed. All BMW vehicles with I-Drive (newer 3, 5, 6 and 7 series — identified by the round, silver knob in the middle of the dash that controls the center LCD) have control modules that are designed to run on the latest level of software.

In other words, if you replace a transmission control module, you can’t just program that module. The BMW programming application will examine all the modules in the vehicle and see if they’re at the same software level as the transmission module you’re replacing. The ones that are not at the same level will be automatically updated when you program the transmission module. That’s why BMW had to open it up to the complete vehicle. If you replace an emissions module, all other modules also must be updated. Older non I-Drive vehicles don’t require complete programming. You can still program modules individually. This is a win-win situation for the aftermarket.
For a list of BMW J2534-recommended devices, go to  

Note: The editorial staff does not endorse or disprove products mentioned in our Guest Editorials. They are for industry education purposes.

Peter David has been in the automotive industry for 25 years — the first 12 years as a technician at various dealerships such as Aston Martin, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, and five years as a shop foreman for an independent repair facility. The last eight years were spent as the designer of scan tools for Assenmacher Specialty Tools and now for ProgRama Scan Tools. He is also an author of an OBD II diagnostics book. 

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