Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Check Engine Light That Cried Wolf

If you grew up in "my day" you knew that when the engine light went on in your car it was something serious.  Ruptured cylinder, exploding piston, melting transmission, fire in the glove box, the Russians launched their ICBM's.

Then something happened around the mid 90's.

The horrible and much-feared engine light would go on, and after a gallon of adrenaline shot through your body, praying the car wouldn't blow up with you in it on the interstate during rush hour, it magically made it safely to the nearest and most-rip-offish service station.  The next day you picked it up and found out "eh, oxygen sensor.  100 bucks to reset the code."

Next car, engine light, panic, station, 100 bucks "fuel sensor."

Next car, engine light, "what the F&CK?  Again???"  mild panic, drive it around a little more, station, "fuel sensor" 100 bucks.

Next car, engine light, "f#ck it, don't care."  Drive around for another 6 months, pull into an auto part store and the clerk tells you "yeah, if you give us your ID, we can lend you this plug in device to your dashboard and it will reset it for you.  You walk out, WOW!  Who knew! O2 sensor!  Reset button, NO 100 bucks.

So in 15 years the much-feared engine light, which was essentially X-Box's "the ring of death" for cars, no longer says a damn thing about your actual engine, but whether or not your exhaust indicates the TIPPY TOP MOST SUPER EFFICIENT mix of air and gas. 

Is it vital?

No.

Is it even important?

No.

But unless you run the damn diagnostic on the car, you never know if THIS ONE TIME it ISN'T the bleeping oxygen sensor and the car is about to blow up and render you a charred corpse on a traffic jam during rush hour. 

Now, it isn't as bad as in the mid 90's when the local station would charge you $100 to plug something in and hit a button, but you still have the fear of an imminent exploding car and the annoying chore of driving to your local O'Reilly's Auto store to use your license as collateral to boring a plug in device.  And so when your beloved ole Captain was driving early this morning, and received the deceiving "engine light" on his car, only to find out it was once again the stupid "fuel sensor" he went online and bought this.

Not only will I save enough in gas to pay for the damn thing, I will also increase my life expectancy by 40 years not fretting about the stupid check engine light.

24 comments:

heresolong said...

If I leave you picture ID can I borrow it?

:)

Bob Wallace said...

I've had check engine lights on for years. One time the code reader said it was a device on top of the transmission that prevented me from starting the car in neutral. It stayed on three years until I junked the car with 488,000 miles on it.

hiddenleaves said...

Mine came on just as I was about to get an oil change recently. "Evap code." "Is that serious?" "No, you're just giving off extra emissions." Reset for free, but warned it would probably come back on. It did. I ignored it. A week later, it went back off.

Now I'm concerned my car's computer has become sentient, but as long as said sentience is geared toward self-healing, I'm okay with it.

Chase Sway said...

Nice post bro. I had a check engine light on since 2006. When the time comes for inspections I disconnect the battery and reset it. The codes come back after 45 miles and the light turns on at 50. I have it timed out perfectly. Sure it's an easy fix, just something to do with emissions. Last time I panicked it was an O2 sensor and turns out my car has california emissions, $200 just for the stupid part.

James Wolfe said...

I have an 89 Dodge Dakota convertible. The check engine light has been on for 6 years. Since it has no computer the emissions test has to sample the exhaust manually. It always passes. If figure in a few more years the check engine light will burn out. Problem solved!

The check engine light on my Mazda is on. It won't pass the test. Problem? Faulty gas cap or some damn fool sensor that will cost $700 to replace. Anything actually wrong with it? Nope. Just to change the front headlights several mechanics suggest its easier to remove the front bumper and disassemble the whole lamp housing otherwise you have to remove half the engine. What idiot designs a car like that? Your headlights burn out and the car is totaled. Might as well scrap it. I love modern technology.

Anonymous said...

Not sure about the need for any paid reset, or reset button when the check engine light comes on. I have a Honda Civic that has started doing this about every 6 months or so because of the O2 sensor (and it means jack squat), but you can reset it yourself by disconnecting the battery for about a minute.

randian said...

Check engine lights work that way by government edict. DOT reasoned that if you know what the problem is you might not take the car to the shop to get it fixed.

Also, most (all?) states with mandatory smog inspections won't pass your car if the light is on even if the underlying problem isn't pollution related.

Anonymous said...

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D

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D

Anonymous said...

You got a code reader? Those are good to have, they provide you with some protection against a certain sort of auto shop. Those guys hate it when you walk in already knowing what their reader is going to say.

Might be worth keeping in mind that cars were not always capable of providing much information back in the Seventies, when idiot lights became really common. All they could really tell you was that the steam coming out from the gaps in the hood, and the lifter noise that's been getting worse and worse at the same time as that burning oil smell--the little red light has came on to tell you that it's probably too late to do much about that except open your wallet and brace for all the razzing you're about to get from your friends. They were called idiot lights for a reason. Can't really call them that now.

Mike James

MizuBob said...

My car is an '02. The light came on around 2003 or 4. It has stayed on since that time with nary an issue.
The boys at Autozone said it was a fuel something or other in the fuel tank. Whatever. Still going strong with 200,000 plus on it.
Bob Wallace - 488,000? Outstanding!

Anonymous said...

1979 Alfa Romeo here. No power steering, no fuel injection, no electronics of any form, and certainly no engine light. Carburettors and points which can be cleaned and adjusted at practically zero cost, and an oil pressure gauge and warning light with a totally unambiguous meaning. Fuel consumption is rather high in town and you pay an emission penalty on the road tax, but it's worth it just to piss off SWPL's with the smell of unburnt gasoline as you blow the doors off their Prius with the acceleration.

Tam said...

The "check engine" light has always been for emissions-related items. You just didn't know that when you were younger and thought it was serious. ;)

bluto said...

Yep, it was a government regulation that required the emissions control system route through the check engine light (OBD II) because they knew people wouldn't normally maintain the emissions system but were very aware of the importance of the Check Engine light. Some cars don't require a reader, they can send messages by flashing the check engine light after shorting a pair of pins in the ODB plug.

Anonymous said...

It's not a problem until you have to get your car smog checked, like here in California.

I replaced the oxygen sensor on my car, but the computer codes have yet to reset themselves.

It passed the emissions test, but failed the computer check.

So I'm driving around with expired tags waiting for this stupid computer to reset itself, even though there's nothing actually wrong with my car.

Chuckles said...

"Evap" is almost always going to be your gas cap not being on tight enough.

All the other codes? Some matter, some don't. O2 sensors aren't a big deal on an otherwise well-running engine, but a non-working one could eventually lead to detonation (bad).

If you have a smartphone, getting a Bluetooth Code Reader and the free version of Torque lets you do stuff like reset those codes while you're stopped at a red light, which is what I do whenever my shitty gas cap throws a code on me.

Eric Mueller said...

I used to have a '95 Windstar. I assumed it came from the factory with the check engine light on.

My first lesson on check engine lights was in my Navy tech school. I was driving around in my truck about 70 miles from base when my check engine light came on. I freaked out and got off the highway. Told my friend to pull out the owner's manual. Turns out the check engine light "helpfully" comes on at 60,000 miles to remind you to schedule your friendly dealer service. The only time I ever pay attention to check engine anymore is when something is obviously wrong with my car, like a loss of power or shaking.

Bob Wallace said...

Where I live now, the car will not pass the emissions test if the "check engine" light is on, even if is is not emissions related. And if you unhook the battery, unless the codes are stored again in the computer, which takes a day or two, you cannot pass. I was told it couldn't pass because the computer memory was blank. In other words, it is impossible to renew your plates unless you get the underlying problem fixed.

Max said...

Does this really suprise you? I mean people today are far more removed from the technical intricacies of an automobile than they were decades earlier. The mechanic spirit of the NGO workers of nowadays is gone, they probably don't even understand the difference between frequency and phase of electric circuits.

So what did car companies do to reflect this new environment, we let customers know that they have to go to a car shop asap. And we do it for every little thing, because we already know that people don't understand the cars.

When it comes to exhaust gases, those little yellow lights usually are there thanks to Europe and their harsh enivironmental restrictions.

Factory said...

If it helps restore years to your life, you might take heart in this: most check engine lights will flash if the issue is serious, and stay on steady if the situation is not a 'pull over immediately and take cover' sort of issue.

They don't publicize this in case once a check engine light stays on solid and was instead tripped by a major malfunction and they get shut down from all the 'Merican lawsuits that result of such gross negligence...

Bob Wallace said...

I'm going to buy a '68 Mustang and screw all this.

Anonymous said...

Suggestion to "fix" the check engine light for the O2 sensor ... ever since this worked the first time I've been doing it at least once a year (usually twice) ... pour gas additive into the tank as fuel injector cleaner (Lucas; Gumout; etc.) just prior to a good run of at least 100 miles at highway speeds ... and magically it rally DOES clean some crap out and both timthe engine light goes OFF! ... the cheap $3 solution. It's worked on several old beaters including a '98 Buick, a 2000 Explorer, a 2000 Chrysler and my ma-in-law's ancient Toyota.

Davers6

Southern Man said...

Yeah, both my relatively new vehicles occasionally cough up an evap code. An extra twist of the gas cap fixes it every time. But the REAL reason to have a code reader is to impress the ladies. Reset her light and it's a home cooked dinner for two!

Phil Galt said...

Bob Wallace said...
I'm going to buy a '68 Mustang and screw all this.

Good call, but speaking as someone who kept an old Mustang for over 10 years as a daily driver, they do come with their own set of headaches. I still have the Mustang, but now have Fiat as a daily driver....