Seeking more clarity with that pesky check-engine light

Automotive News | June 20, 2012 - 3:17 pm EST

My check-engine light came on the other day.

Or, as it should really be called, the "your car knows exactly what's wrong but it refuses to tell you anything useful because it enjoys watching you panic" light. It might just mean you were too busy watching your paycheck disappear at the gas station to remember to tighten the cap. Or it could mean that the car has carefully chosen this desolate stretch of highway to test your survivalist skills.

Automakers build cars today that can tell you the pressure of each tire, warn you of other vehicles in your blind spot and parallel park themselves. Features such as Ford Sync even allow you to practically have conversations with the car, which then probably spends all night complaining to other cars about your terrible taste in music.

But when something unexpectedly goes wrong, the car suddenly clams up. It just turns on this light that I suppose looks vaguely like an engine and moves to the next song on your all-Justin Bieber playlist, relieved that this is your problem to deal with now.

"You know nothing about cars," it figures. "So why should I tell you what's wrong? Just take me to the dealer, and he and I will talk it over and then tell you how much this is going to cost."

This all makes very little sense. Beyond your inexplicable Bieber obsession as an adult, I mean.

Your overly judgmental car could easily just tell you precisely what the problem is. Whatever made that little light go on gets stored as a trouble code in the onboard diagnostics computer. So why is it such a big secret?

A few months ago, the Web site Jalopnik called for the federal government to ban the generic check-engine light. It said regulators should force automakers to program cars so they display the trouble code and a basic description of the problem.

"By not letting the car's owner know what's going on in the engine, a regular driver, one who may not be particularly interested in cars, is entirely beholden to a paid professional to get hidden information from a machine they own," Jalopnik's Jason Torchinsky wrote. "That goes against the great Owner's Manifesto and puts the owner in a very vulnerable position if a mechanic or dealer was dishonest. I think -- nay, I hope -- most are honest, but without good information on both sides, how can a given owner know? And why should they not know?"

Of course, there's nothing -- besides money, anyway -- stopping an automaker from making the check-engine light more useful without the government getting involved. But it's the type of feature that could make customers happier and therefore be a worthwhile expense.

I'll give General Motors credit: I discovered that OnStar, which I have in my car, can run a remote diagnostics test and tell you why the check-engine light is on. Still, why not show that information in the dashboard the instant your car has it? To encourage OnStar subscriptions? Because your car is secretly videotaping your profanity-laced reaction and posting it on YouTube?

Years ago, some company sent me a reader that plugs into a vehicle's onboard diagnostics (OBD-II) port, which the government has required since 1996. On a previous vehicle, which didn't have OnStar, I used the reader and Google to figure out I could fix a problem with a $4 can of brake cleaner and five minutes of work. Taking it to the dealer would have cost at least $100 and probably several hours.

Most people don't have an OBD-II reader, and many might not know how to use one if they did. But everyone knows how to look at their dashboard (I hope), and right now all they see there is a light that merely says "something" is wrong.

Maybe it's time automakers did "something" about that.

Nick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive NewsNick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive News

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