The check engine light (CEL) on our Porsche Boxster comes on periodically. This light is supposed to “help” the car owner by telling them that there is an issue with the car and should be brought in for service. The fact that the light can indicate anything from a loose gas cap to the engine about to explode means the CEL is about as helpful as someone telling their doctor “Doc, I don’t feel right.” As currently implemented, the CEL is one of the worse user-interface decisions ever. At the absolute minimum, there should be a RESET button: if the light keeps coming back on, then there would be more of a reason to bring it in for service. Car makers don’t call them “idiot lights” because they think the lights are stupid. What they are really saying is, “Look, you won’t understand the problem so we are not even going to bother trying to explain it, just let your mechanic deal with it.” We find the attitude more than condescending, we find it lazy. How difficult would it be for car makers to give the driver some actionable info? With all of the LCD displays in today’s car, a meaningful CEL message would put an end to the guessing. It is amazing that we all just put up with this kind of crap from car makers.
Well, the CarMD folks have a different attitude. They are saying…”You know what? Most folks are fairly intelligent. They want to know what the problem is even if they don’t know how to fix it. Let’s tell them what the sensors are saying.” To do that, the CarMD folks have created an On-Board-Diagnostic (OBD II) code reader that ANYONE can use. Just plug it into the OBD socket in the car (it is easy to find and it is somewhere on the dash) and the CarMD code reader does the rest. It is easier than screwing in a light bulb.
The CarMD package comes with the ODB II code reader, USB cable, software, and a carrying case. The code reader has an LCD screen, a standard ODB II plug in one end, and a USB port on the other. The unit is powered by two AA batteries. It is shaped to fit nicely in the hand and weighs less than a typical cell phone.
When examining the unit, we noticed four screws in the back of the case. We took this as an invitation to open it up and take a peek inside. We liked what we saw: a nicely laid out circuit board, no moving parts, and solid looking construction. Unlike many of today’s gadgets, the CarMD can probably take quite few drops onto concrete before it stops working.
CarMD is designed to work in parallel with the diagnostic software, but can give quite a bit of information as a standalone device. A quick status of car’s health can be obtained by plugging in the CarMD into the OBD II connector and turning on the car. The the car’s OBD data is autmatically downloaded to the CarMD, and its three lights give immediate feedback: Green-OK; Yellow-Possible Problem; Red-Sevice Required. The LCD display also gives a readout of any diagnostic codes. Since the meaning of the codes are up to the individual manufacturer (don’t even get us started on the silliness of this), CarMD has a website with an extensive online database to help with further diagnosis.
CarMD has extended the functionality of their site quite a bit since we reviewed them a few years ago. In the FirstUse review of v3.0, we’ll take a closer look at CarMD’s new diagnostic software and updated trouble-analysis website. We are especially interested in the accuracy of their repair estimates. There is even talk of CarMD working with repair shops to honor the CarMD estimates. Now that would be interesting.