The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

10 March 2003

Conspiracy theory behind the dash

Americans have lots of thoughts about things automotive. (This is, in case you've forgotten or you've been living in Berkeley for the last ten years, because we actually have lots of cars and we get to drive them all over the place.) Inevitably, some of those thoughts prove to be erroneous, egregious, or downright excruciating (cf. an otherwise perfectly innocuous Honda Civic with two-thirds of its bodywork covered in bubbly decalcomania and its exhaust terminating in a Folger's can).

There is one thought which borders on the universal, though: the thought that the so-called Check Engine Light is a conspiracy against the laity, that the evil little glow means only that your local wrenchman has a boat payment due. At least once a week, I get an anguished letter from some poor soul asking how to shut the thing off, and I'm running out of variations on ways to say "Take it to the shop and have the farging codes pulled."

The truth of the matter is simply this: modern engines run with extremely tight calibrations to meet extremely tight (and becoming more so) emissions specifications, and if any one component of the twenty bazillion or so under the hood isn't pulling its weight, the Malfunction Indicator Light (to give it its correct name) snaps on and the engine computer records the appropriate error code. Unless you know what that error code is and what it means — and I, buried in email, certainly can't read it from here — you're out of luck. And present-day OBD II-equipped vehicles don't give up their codes to just anyone: you need the appropriate scan tool.

Which, of course, is part of the conspiracy. If you don't want to pay the dealer $75 to pull the codes, you probably also don't want to pay hundreds of dollars for your very own scanning device. But the unpleasant fact is this: the shadetree mechanic is well on his way to dropping off the Endangered Species list and into extinction. The techniques that used to work to squeeze a couple more months out of a worn set of points don't mean a thing to a mass airflow meter. And given the fact that most people think they're more mechanically inclined than they really are — myself included — twelve or thirteen times out of ten they're going to make matters worse by trying to fix these things themselves.

Please. Take it to the shop and have the farging codes pulled.

Posted at 7:44 AM to Driver's Seat

And this is the price we pay for two or three less parts-per-billion of gross pollutants.

Posted by: Kevin McGehee at 11:14 AM on 10 March 2003

If it is something -other- than the engine, I'm more than capable of doing the work.

I can't work on carburetors and have never understood how an automatic transmission works, but most of the rest of the car is comprehensible and the repairs do-able.

Posted by: Steve at 11:22 AM on 10 March 2003

I kind of like breathing, myself. :)

Actually, the Federal standard is not especially unreasonable at the moment, though the California specs (which are calling for not infinitesimal, but zero, emissions in years to come) are absurd. What's more, the Golden State wants to reduce carbon dioxide, which, unlike all your standard pollutants, will even be produced by an engine that works perfectly. Had they three electoral votes instead of fifty-odd, it would be politically possible to tell them to go fart up a flagpole.

Drum brakes and CV joints, at least, haven't changed a whole hell of a lot.

Posted by: CGHill at 11:31 AM on 10 March 2003

Yet another reason to love my tractor -- I can still do work on it if I feel mechanical. My 2002 F150 5.something liter, sorry, litre is an absolute mystery to me. Oil here, washer fluid there, coolant in this spout and that's that. Anything else, and it's straight to City Garage. I can't fit an arm in there anymore, anyway. Embarassing, but there ya go.

(but then there's always the 30 year-old 454 w/ Rochester Quad farm truck to play with...heh, heh)

Posted by: Scott Chaffin at 1:02 PM on 10 March 2003

Woah to the poor mechanic who has to buy these implements, too. I won't tell you how much in hock J is to Snap-On. It boggles the mind.

Mechanics have to be very computer literate to compete in today's market. Just about like any other job out there.

Of course, if I get started on cars, it'll inevitably lead back to my irritation with designers. But, I think we've been there together before. ;)


Posted by: Becky at 5:35 PM on 10 March 2003