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Check Engine

by VM Brasseur on December 28th, 2006

Over a week ago I was driving a friend to lunch when I noticed that the ‘Check Engine’ light had come on. In my almost brand new car. What the hell could there be to check when the thing isn’t even six months old yet? Fer cryin’ out loud…

I called the dealer as soon as we got back from lunch. “Hey, what gives? This car? Almost new!” In a very blase voice the tech replied, “Oh, that light? It never comes on for anything important and then only if there’s a problem in the emissions system somewhere. 90% of the time it’s just that the gas cap isn’t tightened down. Don’t worry about it. Keep driving as usual this weekend and bring your car in on Monday.”

There are a couple of things that bother me about this. First of all, why is this called a “Check Engine” light (right down to the little engine iconography on the light itself) if it has almost nothing to do with the engine? Why isn’t this called the “Check Emissions System” light, which is really what it is?

Secondly, if this light never comes on for anything important then why bother having the bloody thing at all? Right now the only purpose it seems to serve is as a panic button for those of us who have a deep conditioning to freak out when the “Check Engine” light comes on in their car. It would save them a lot of engineering time and money if they’d just jettison the thing. The very least they can do is make it useful.

In this case it turns out that my car needs a new evaporator pump (part of the emissions system, as predicted by the tech), but apparently it’s no big deal. I get to continue driving my car while the dealer waits for the part to arrive from the Mazda Replacement Part Fairy (who seems to fly much more slowly over the holidays, probably due to all the added sleigh air traffic). The light went out for a few days after the initial visit to the shop but has just relit. I’m resisting the urge to call the dealer with questions and am managing to contain my automotive freak out instinct.

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2 Comments
  1. Yeah, it’s only when the “check engine” light is blinking that you need to head straight to the mechanic, evidently. We had that scare early on as well, but ours turned out to need a new gas cap that sealed better and didn’t let gas evaporate. Which of course I am in favor of. But you’re right, it doesn’t seem to have that much to do with the engine…

  2. suomynona permalink

    The wikipedia article explains things fairly well.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%22Check_Engine%22_Light

    I suspect the word “Engine” is used because Drivetrain is too technical, and it could be something in the exhuast, the fuel intake, or some other enige support system. And ‘Check Exhaust’ would likely lead to lots of idiots doing stupid things.

    Whihc is likely always a concern when it comes to cars. Cause idiots do lots of stupid things.

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