DUCK SOUP: Soundless Fury

Your car has a computer under the hood if it was built in the last ten or fifteen years. That's why new models need less frequent tune-ups, use less fuel and generally run better than older ones. So why do they still come equipped with idiot lights?Maybe I should rephrase that. What I mean is, if you are paying for a computer, why can't you figure out what the computer is up to? Why should that computer only be accessible to High Priests at the Temple of Repair? Idiot lights, you probably recall, are warning lights that any idiot can understand. A red one reading "Temp" or "Oil" will probably turn on a companion light in your brain which suggests checking the cooling system reservoir or dipstick.At least, that's what they used to do. But today's cars are smarter. After all they have computers under the hood, don't they? And today's car makers are smarter too. Why should they let your car tell you what's wrong with itself when they can charge you a nice chunk of change to diagnose the problem?Recently my 1987 Ford Ranger told me to "Check Engine." I popped the hood open and sure enough, there was the engine. Oil, water, fan belts, everything looked hunky-dory. "S'all right?" I asked aloud. The little four-banger said, "S'all right."I closed the hood and restarted. "Check Engine." Being less of an idiot than some of you might imagine, I phoned not one, but three dealers and spoke to service personnel. Number one said it was probably the oxygen sensor. For $35 they could hook it up to their diagnostic machine and tell me exactly what was wrong. Number two asked how many miles were on the vehicle. 60,000, oh. Some models are designed to automatically turn on the Check Engine light when the odometer rolls over a particular number. For $70 they could hook it up to their diagnostic machine and tell me if anything at all was wrong. Number three said it was probably emissions related. For $45 they could hook it up to their diagnostic machine and tell me exactly what was wrong. Number three was remarkably candid. "If it were my car," he advised, "I would ignore it."As a writer on a modest income long accustomed to fixing my own cars, I was doubly dissatisfied with the dealers' answers. Do they think I am some kind of an idiot? I should pay them to interpret what my computer is trying to tell me? Right.So, I consulted an independent mechanic who told me a handy trick. If all of the vital signs are okay, any idiot can fix a Check Engine light in less than a minute. Simply cut a short strip of black electrical tape and stick it over the warning. Voila! No more problem!More seriously, he explained that manufacturers want you to remember to service your car and pre-program warnings for recommended mileage targets. At first it was easy for do-it-yourselfers to disable the lights by disconnecting the battery for a few minutes to clear the memory. Today, a dealer's computer is usually required to reset the warning timer. Not only does this prevent an owner from doing the work, it cuts out the small scale independent repair shop as well. At the same time it gives the dealer a chance to sell you unrelated service. Face it, you have already re-arranged your schedule to get the car to the shop. Why not do a lube, a tune-up, muffler, brakes, shocks, tires and filters while it's up on the rack? The most underhanded part of the whole scheme is that there really is a computer under your hood. When the dealer hooks up that fancy diagnostic machine, it is only reading what your car already knows. The light on the dash shouldn't say "Check Engine," it should say "Write Check." In fine print it could also say, "Sucker."In this high tech age with smart cards, smart locks, smart phones ... smart everything, a vehicle should not only be able to tell the owner exactly what is wrong, it should be required to do so. Anything less is simply treating us like, well, like idiots.

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