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Why The Check Engine Light Must Go

Posted in Our Blog on January 19, 2012


If you’re anything like me, you find the “Check Engine” light that shows up on your car’s dashboard very easy to ignore. I know I’m not alone in this because a movement has sprung up on the internet to do away with the Check Engine light, and it’s gaining steam.

Jason Torchinsky, in a post for the car blog Jalopnik, says of the Check Engine light:

The continued use of a generic, uninformative ‘check engine’ light in cars keeps car owners in the dark about the condition of their vehicle, and ensures they stay dependent and subordinate to car dealers and mechanics…When something goes wrong, all the average motorist sees is that little drawing of an engine bisected by a lightning bolt. And all that tells them is basically nothing… To see exactly what sort of fault takes a ‘special scanner’ that plugs into the OBD-II connector. These scanners are almost always owned by mechanics or dealers.

While it’s hard to know if there’s anything beyond anecdotal evidence for “unscrupulous” car dealers and mechanics taking advantage of their customers, I’m more concerned with the efficacy of the light. My car displays a message that says, “MAINT REQUIRED.” It has displayed this many times, and, because my car doesn’t drive any differently after the light comes on, I’m conditioned to ignore it. I don’t know if the light has come on for a serious reason or something I can just deal with later, and so I just go on with my life and forget about the light. Eventually it just becomes a part of the background.

Torchinsky argues that, in our age of information and technology, there’s no reason our cars shouldn’t be more specific in communicating with us what’s wrong with them:

The state of things now is that your car actually could do more than just throw an error code at consumers. It contains an advanced system to diagnose itself, but the actual information from that diagnosis is not available to the car’s owner; the average owner must pay a dealer or mechanic to provide him or her with the codes, and what those codes mean. This is absurd. Early on, when in-dash displays were rare, one could understand why cars didn’t just display what codes were being thrown… But today’s dash displays capable of displaying text, or at a minimum numerical codes, have been commonplace in cars for at least a decade. Now, pretty much every new car has some sort of alphanumeric display that could show both OBD codes and a short English description, but no manufacturer does this.

His argument makes a lot of sense. The Check Engine light is outdated and should be phased out. He’s gone so far as to petition the Obama Administration to enact legislation that would regulate this change (Similar to government standards for tire pressure, seat belts, air bags, etc.). You can sign the petition yourself HERE.