On-Board Diagnostics, or OBD, in an automotive context, is a generic term referring to a vehicle's self-diagnostic and reporting capability. OBD systems give the vehicle owner or a repair technician access to state of health information for various vehicle sub-systems. The amount of diagnostic information available via OBD has varied widely since the introduction in the early 1980s of on-board vehicle computers, which made OBD possible. Early instances of OBD would simply illuminate a malfunction indicator light, or MIL, if a problem was detected—but would not provide any information as to the nature of the problem. Modern OBD implementations use a standardized digital communications port to provide real-time data in addition to a standardized series of diagnostic trouble codes, or DTCs, which allow one to rapidly identify and remedy malfunctions within the vehicle.
The regulatory intent of OBD-I was to encourage auto manufacturers to design reliable emission control systems that remain effective for the vehicle's "useful life". The hope was that by forcing annual emissions testing for California, and denying registration to vehicles that did not pass, drivers would tend to purchase vehicles that would more reliably pass the test. OBD-I was largely unsuccessful, as the means of reporting emissions-specific diagnostic information was not standardized. Technical difficulties with obtaining standardized and reliable emissions information from all vehicles led to an inability to implement the annual testing program effectively.
OBD-II is an improvement over OBD-I in both capability and standardization. The OBD-II standard specifies the type of diagnostic connector and its pinout, the electrical signalling protocols available, and the messaging format. It also provides a candidate list of vehicle parameters to monitor along with how to encode the data for each. There is a pin in the connector that provides power for the scan tool from the vehicle battery, which eliminates the need to connect a scan tool to a power source separately. However, some technicians might still connect the scan tool to an auxiliary power source to protect data in the unusual event that a vehicle experiences a loss of electrical power due to a malfunction. Finally, the OBD-II standard provides an extensible list of DTCs. As a result of this standardization, a single device can query the on-board computer(s) in any vehicle. This OBD-II came in two models OBD-IIA and OBD-IIB. OBD-II standardization was prompted by emissions requirements, and though only emission-related codes and data are required to be transmitted through it, most manufacturers have made the OBD-II Data Link Connector the only one in the vehicle through which all systems are diagnosed and programmed. OBD-II Diagnostic Trouble Codes are 4-digit, preceded by a letter: P for engine and transmission (powertrain), B for body, C for chassis, and U for network.
The OBD-II specification provides for a standardized hardware interface—the female 16-pin (2x8) J1962 connector. Unlike the OBD-I connector, which was sometimes found under the hood of the vehicle, the OBD-II connector is required to be within 2 feet (0.61 m) of the steering wheel (unless an exemption is applied for by the manufacturer, in which case it is still somewhere within reach of the driver).