Photo: kevin yezbick/Flickr
Editor’s note: Jalopnik has started a petition urging the White House to require that automakers replace the “check engine” light with a display that tells you exactly what’s wrong. Here’s why.
By Jason Torchinsky, Jalopnik
It’s pretty easy to dismiss the check-engine light as stupid, because it is. I suppose if you thought the smoke coming from under your hood had something to do with the floor mats, then, sure, the check engine light is handy. Beyond that, though, it is useless.
But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that the check-engine light is a tool for the propagation of consumer ignorance about their cars. That is why it needs to die. Now.
If it sounds like I’m making a big deal out of this, it’s because I am. The continued use of a generic, uninformative “check engine” keeps car owners in the dark about the condition of their vehicle and ensures they stay dependent upon and subordinate to car dealers and mechanics.
What’s so frustrating is it doesn’t have to be that way.
Let’s look at exactly what the check engine light does in a car, and how it works. To understand it, first we need to understand On-Board Diagnostics (OBD).
Every car sold today has an onboard computer system that monitors the myriad sensors in the drivetrain and reports errors. This has its roots, of all places, in the 1969 Volkswagen Type III, one of the first cars with electronic fuel injection. The “electronic” part was a crude computer that managed the system and scanned for errors. Other manufacturers soon had their own systems, and by 1996 a standardized system called OBD-II was mandated by law in all cars sold in the United States.
OBD-II is a terrific system. What’s not to like about a global standard with standardized connectors and codes to help diagnose problems?
What’s not to like is what happens when something goes wrong.
When your check-engine light comes on, you need a scanner to know why. Lame. Photo: Jason Alley/Flickr.
At that point, the only thing the average motorist sees is a pictogram of an engine, often bisected by a lightning bolt. And all that tells them is, essentially, nothing. The check-engine light is the MIL (Malfunction Indicator Light) of the OBD-II system, and it illuminates whenever a fault is detected. To determine exactly what that fault is, you need a scanner that plugs into the OBD-II port. Dealerships and mechanics have them of course, and so do some shadetree mechanics and car enthusiasts. You also can use a cables to connect a laptop, smartphone or other device with the appropriate software. But the people who do that are not the people who need to worry about a check-engine light.
It’s everyone else who has to worry about a check-engine light, and everyone else who is so often held hostage to it.
My mom, for example, is never going to connect her laptop to the OBD-II connector under the dash in her Volkswagen Passat. It’s hard enough explaining to her how to connect a printer to her Mac. The check-engine light is all but meaningless to her. But if her Passat had a display that indicated the specific error code and explained it, she would at least have an idea what was going on.
As it is, cars could, right now, do more than throw an error code at you. Cars have an advanced self-diagnosis system, but the results are not available to vehicle owners. You’ve got to pay a dealership or mechanic for those error codes and an explanation of what they mean.
This is absurd.
Early on, when sophisticated in-dash displays were rare, you could understand why cars didn’t simply display the error codes as they happened. But today almost every new car has some sort of alphanumeric display that could show the OBD code and a short description of the problem. Why does no one do this?
There’s no good reason not to do it. By failing to provide this information to consumers, regular drivers — that is to say, those who aren’t going to ferret out the codes themselves, and then fix the problem — are beholden to dealerships and mechanics for information readily available in a product they’ve paid for.
Information is power, and by denying you this information, automakers are denying you power. If you’re driving along and that damned check-engine light comes on, you have no way of knowing if it’s a minor problem — the gas cap is loose, for example — or you’re at risk of imminent engine failure. A generic check-engine light also makes it easier for dishonest mechanics to take advantage of unknowing customers.
Given all of the automobile features that are mandated by law, wouldn’t adding another that actually helps consumers make sense? Hell — a detailed OBD display may be the only mandated feature that makes sense.
That is why we need a federal mandate requiring the generic check-engine light be replaced with a dashboard display providing OBD-II codes and a basic description of them. The only rational reasons this hasn’t happened range from (at best) a desire by manufacturers to keep costs as low as possible to (at worst) a deliberate campaign of forced ignorance to maintain dealership profit streams.
Our cars should tell us exactly what’s happening under the hood, even if we have to yell at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to make it happen. I’ll stand outside a supermarket collecting signatures if that’s what it takes to make this happen.
Do it for my mother — and yours.