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Check engine

November 4, 2019

I learned to drive on cars that were pretty simple. With a small tool bag, a jack and full-size spare, extra fluids, and a spare belt, one could repair most things that might go wrong on a road trip. More, the dashboard information was meaningful. Separate gauges would show water or oil temperature, oil pressure, alternator voltage. You had to check the fluid levels yourself.

There was no “check engine” light. Those, strangely, are a product of more rather than less internal measurement. Modern cars have telemetry that rivals the rocket systems of yore. It would have made no sense, as that was developed, to add ever more gauges to the dashboard. Especially as that telemetry was managed through the engine computer. So, instead, we gained the ubiquitous check engine light. Which can mean anything from “your fuel cap isn’t all the way twisted on” to “the engine has run out of oil and is about to seize.” Despite the fact that all cars today have a digital display, few manufacturers provide an interface to determine which of those is the case. They do provide a standard, plug-in interface under the dash for onboard diagnostics. That makes an OBD2 adapter (photo right) as necessary to the modern driver as a jack. Plug it in, pair it with your phone, pull up one of the OBD applications, and soon you will know what error codes has your car bothered. Do a little Googling, fix the problem (if there actually is one), clear the codes, and your bit of auto maintenance is done.

The complexity is figuring out the adapter suited to your car and phone, and the app suited to both. The adapter above is an example only. Diesels and hybrids have some special needs. You may have to investigate a bit to find the one best for your circumstance.

In the bright future, fewer people will bother with driving and auto maintenance, because we will just jump into Waymo’s autonomous vehicles, which are seeing their first commercial service without safety drivers. That is why I am long Google.

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