Kill The Idiot Lights

Editor’s Note: The following article by Steve Prestegard has been reprinted here with permission.

Jalopnik is embarking on a campaign all vehicle owners should support:

It’s pretty easy to dismiss the “check engine” light as just stupid, because, well, it is. I suppose if you thought that the cause of smoke coming from under your hood had something to do with the floor mats, then, sure, the “check engine” light is handy, but beyond that, it’s 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. Which 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” 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.

You know from previous blogs that “idiot lights” (in most cars, indicating low oil pressure or voltage, and in some cars high engine temperature) are a poor substitute for gauges that show actual engine readings. (“Idiot lights” are one of Cadillac’s improvements that were not improvements.)

The yellow Check Engine light is tied to your (1996 or newer) car’s computer. The Check Engine light indicates that which (unless you own a diagnostic computer) is only revealed at a car repair place, for a fee, of course. And owners of older cars know that the Check Engine light becomes, in essence, another map light, unless you cover it with a small piece of electrical tape.

Your car is capable of much more, says Jalopnik:

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. …

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. I’ve heard of some cars over the years that employed weird, Nintendo-cheat-code-like procedures to display codes (I think Neons had something with turning the car on and off rapidly in succesion) but nobody does this by default. And they should.

There’s no good reason not to. 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. 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?

Or what about this: if your resources are tight, and you rely on your car to work, and the “check engine” light comes on, you’d have no way of knowing if it’s indicating a massive repair or a minor sensor issue. You’d have to guess, either ignoring it and hoping it’s nothing, or taking it to a shop and hoping you’ll be able to pay for whatever the repair turns out to be, a repair performed by a for-profit enterprise based on information you as an owner have never seen. Making valuable information about a person’s own property inaccessible only enables uninformed judgement and the possibility of fraud.

Basically, the generic “check engine” light makes it easier for dishonest mechanics to take advantage of unknowing customers. Considering other car features that are federally-mandated — like tire pressure sensors and airbag warning lights — wouldn’t adding one to actually help the consumer make sense? It may be the only type of federal-required feature that makes sense.

This kind of protect-you-from-yourself attitude — there’s something wrong with your car, but we’re not going to tell you what it is — is just the latest in the sort-of conspiracy among carmakers, the auto repair industry and Washington to take control of cars from their owners. Another is the disappearance of manual transmissions, which are incompatible with start–stop technology and cylinder deactivation, two of the worse ideas to supposedly improve gas mileage. Another not (yet) mandated by the feds is the waste of energy known as Daytime Running Lights, installed on most GM cars and unfortunately my Subaru Outback. DRLs cause the engine to work harder, resulting in a loss of fuel economy, but DRLs also require much more frequent replacement of headlights. (Replacing and correctly aiming halogen headlights is a pain given that halogen bulbs are as sturdy as 100-year-old crystal.)

The Check Engine light dates back to the 1981 model year, when computers first started being installed in cars in large numbers to control various engine functions. We were cursed with a 1981 Chevy Malibu whose Check Engine light went on for no apparent reason for the entire 5½ years my parents were sentenced to own the car. It is impressive to note that cars today have more computer power than the ships that took astronauts to the Moon and back, but not when your car doesn’t apparently function correctly for no apparent reason.

Jalopnik suggests you sign a petition asking the feds to ban Check Engine lights and require that the feds require carmakers to actually spell out the problem the Check Engine light is supposed to indicate.

Yes, a display message could be that easy. It could also be that easy to add voltmeter and oil pressure gauges so that you can see your battery or alternator die and get it fixed before getting stranded in the former case, or to see that your engine is in danger of seizing up in the latter (and much more expensive to fix) case.

There are some warning lights that can’t be replaced by gauges — for instance, the airbag-failing-to-inflate light or the antilock-brakes-don’t-work lights. But similar to fuel and temperature gauges, voltmeters and oil pressure gauges allow you to deal with a problem before it sticks you immobile in the middle of nowhere.

Since the original blog came out earlier this week, the author got some feedback and replied with more feedback:

• People don’t care: There’s a lot of truth to this one. Lots of people genuinely don’t care to know how their cars work, and the check engine light is more than enough for them to ignore. But, trust me, a skillful check engine light ignorist will have no trouble ignoring an engine diagnostic message. Why, I bet they can even use the same ignoring skills for both! This idea will not help these people, but that’s ok, because they don’t care. I understand my clumsy writing may have led people to think I’m advocating a spring-loaded knife that shoots out of the dash and holds the blade to the driver’s neck until he or she gives a shit, but that’s not so. If you want the information, great. If not, it’s no different.

• People don’t want to know this stuff: This one is similar to the above, and the same rules apply. They can ignore whatever they want. But I think more people want to know some technical details than we think. Car advertisers must think so, as many car ads are full of technical details. Hell, even catchphrases like “Does that thing have a Hemi?” are actually referring to arcane details like the shape of the engine’s combustion chambers; clearly, people are not repulsed by technical automotive details, at least to some degree.

The odd little proto-SUV caught the eye of one of President Ronald Reagan’s advisers that same year, not long before Reagan made his second presidential run. Richard V. Allen, a Japan expert who served as Reagan’s National Security Advisor for a short time after the Gipper took over the White House in 1981, arranged through one of his contacts at Fuji Heavy Industries (the company of which Subaru is a subsidiary) for the car to be given to the then former California governor and failed 1976 presidential candidate. …

Allen got word that BRATs were being tested to destruction at a proving ground in the desert somewhere out west. He said his Fuji contact told him they were having trouble destroying the jump-seated warriors.

“I said, ‘I have a friend with a ranch. You could give him one of the destructed ones and see how much longer he could use it,’” Allen recalls.

That’s how a Subaru BRAT ended up at Reagan’s ranch in the mountains west of Santa Barbara, Calif. (after being sprayed with a fresh coat of fire engine red paint). The only condition Subaru had was that the car’s new owner file a report on its performance every six months, making Reagan a test driver of sorts for the company.

Rancho del Cielo was (and still is) an apt home for for the BRAT, and for a time, Reagan was a big fan of the diminutive sport ute.

“It was a tough little dude on the ranch and Reagan loved it,” Allen says.

Political realities being what they were, it’s too bad that Reagan or his advisors lacked the courage to use Reagan’s Subie ownership to tout free trade. On the other hand, all’s well that ends well, since Subarus now are assembled in Lafayette, Ind.

The presidential BRAT has been restored and is on display at the Reagan presidential museum.

That lever between the seats and the instrument panel is a shifter for a manual transmission. Yes, Reagan could drive a stick.

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