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Woman on the Verge of an Automotive Breakdown
by Carolyn Donovan, January 2005

Don't lie, when the "Check Engine" light goes on in your car, you freak out too. Stop yer freakin' with the nifty little gadget called the CarChip. (You need to read the entire article to know why...)

Backstory/Confession of an Automotive Novice

I bought my first car for $700 cash. It was a faded pastel blue, the color of those sugar-coated almonds you no longer get as wedding favors.

It was a stick shift. I walked by it every day on my way to work, just before the pedestrian underpass to Interstate 93 at the Assembly Square exit.

When I took possession of the vehicle, my roommate Donna had to come with me, because I did not know how to drive a stick shift and could not drive it the three blocks to our apartment.

Both roommates (Donna and Betsy) gave me a quick lesson (“clutch up, gas down”) and much encouragement ("You'll get it, you're very coordinated"), and I drove my new car 13 miles that night to my parents' house. It took me 90 minutes. I was very proud of my stick-shifting self, although I was sweating profusely by the time I got there and had to take a shower (many horns were honked at me, and in very emotional ways).

Circumstances led to my returning home for a while (either a roommate got married or we all hated each other, I forget which), and my trusty car came with me. It was a freedom I cherished. I had my own money, and my own insurance, and could go where I wanted, when I wanted. I was forever driving people home, because, having grown up in Houghs Neck, I know what it feels like to come home from anywhere and having to wait 59 minutes for the bus because you just missed the previous one. There is one road to Houghs Neck, and it ends at Houghs Neck, so if you’re not from there, you aren’t going there.

I loved my car until the day after a tremendous snow storm dropped a foot of snow on us. I got in my car to drive to work, and just as I pulled away from the house, I looked in the rear-view and noticed a ribbon of black trailing behind me on the snow. It was shiny and very black and coming from my car. I turned around and re-parked the car, went into the house, and told my father. He looked out the window, then looked at me, and said “Well, dumb-ass, you cracked your engine block.”

I mention all this not so much to point out the man’s failings as a father, but to show the complete breakdown between fathers and daughters when it comes to things automotive. As I mentioned in a previous article, people of the male persuasion clearly have forgotten that they learned about cars and are a little abrupt, let us say, with those of us who have less knowledge about things automotive. I was harangued somewhat aggressively that day about oil changes, tire rotations, checkups and tune-ups, all of which I had seen ads for in the newspaper but had never really experienced. Dad took the family cars to…the guy who…did things to the car…and then Dad came back home with the car. That was the extent of automotive maintenance in my family. Dad never did anything more automotive than stick the key in the ignition, but he knew guys who knew how to do things…

I never forgot what I felt that day, the feeling of stupidity and humiliation. Some people would just get pissed (and not in the Irish drinking way), but I had this reputation as being the smartest person in the family, all 100 of us. To be called an idiot was almost more than I could bear. So what did I do? Did I learn about cars, so I could say “The dooferdangle needs a new gizmo, I’m just gonna go to the auto store and pick up a couple, they’re on sale”? Nope, I stuck my head in the sand, but when I got another (old) car, I at least went for oil changes and kept the gas tank filled above half-way (which could have been an old Armenian myth, but since I bought it from them and it was in excellent condition, I did the same).

But there was always this nagging, albeit squelched, fear that I needed to know about cars. I approached auto-ownership sort of the way little girls approach a big present on their 8th birthday: Please-let-it-be-okay-Please-let-it-be-okay-Please-let-it-be-okay (substitute “a pony” for “okay”). Automotive-ness seemed too, what’s the word, much, for me to comprehend. Every time I told myself I wanted to, needed to, know what was going on under the hood, I was overwhelmed with the same feelings of stupidity and humiliation from the now infamous Cracked Engine Block Day.

Actual Article (more or less)

Fast forward many, many years (more than a decade) (and a half): I’m driving a(n old)(er) Toyota Camry, and the “Check Engine” light comes on. Agh! Agh! Agh! It’s happening again! Something’s wrong with the car and it’s my fault and I don’t know what it is and the car’s gonna die and I’ll have to get another one and I don’t have the money! Clearly, the yoga was not helping me enough.

How do you check an engine? Can you tell something’s wrong with an engine by looking at it? Shouldn’t a little “thing” pop up to tell you that this is the thing that’s wrong, the way some brands of Thanksgiving turkeys have a pop-up thing to tell you when it’s cooked?

I phoned my knowledgeable local garage (the Managing Editor of RainyDay lets them change the oil on the Boxster, so they have to be good), and he said not to worry, the “Check Engine” light is not like the “Oil” light; you can drive with the “Check Engine” light on but not the “Oil” light. Oh yeah, then why is it RIGHT NEXT TO IT? Anyway, he was going to charge me $90 to hook my dooferdangle (car) up to his gizmo (computer) to tell me what the light meant.

The auto mechanic said that most times with cars like mine, the “Check Engine” light comes on because the oxygen sensor in the gas tank can be misreading the oxygen intake. A lot of times it happens when the gas tank cap is not replaced properly. My boyfriend knew just what to do. We will skip ahead a few chapters and just say that once the battery was disengaged for a few seconds the “Check Engine” light went off. But once I drove the car, the light came on again.

Then along comes the CarChip from DriveRight. You stick it in the OBDII connector (mine is directly under/below the driving wheel, just behind the dash, although I had to kneel on the ground and stick my head underneath the dash to get to it), and drive along with it recording all the things that are going on with the car. I made a call to the company and the man told me, and in a quite reasonable tone of voice, that my event had already occurred, so the CarChip couldn't record it (which is logical). However, the CarChip can actually reset the light (you do it through software, which has been discussed in the technical review), and if the light comes on while the CarChip is connected, it will record it, and tell you what actually triggered it!

Long story short: My system was "running lean.” One search for the phrase, and I discovered that it means not enough gas is getting into the mixture (you need some air and some gas to make the engine go, apparently). Possible problems? Dirty air filter, dirty fuel filter. Reaction from female owner? Relaxation, for she now knows what is wrong with the car, and can takes steps to remedy it.

This is what technology is for, to detect when something is wrong, AND to tell you what it is that’s wrong.

The CarChip is easy to use; you stick it in the OBDII connector in your car, and when you want to know what’s going on, you remove it, bring it into the house (and maybe make yourself a cup of tea), connect it to the accompanying cable and the cable to the USB port on the computer, and (as long as you have already installed the software, which is done automatically)(once you put the CD in the drive)(duh), the info on the CarChip is downloaded to your computer and pops up on the screen. You can even look at it in different modes (graphs, tables, etc).

I feel so much better, I’m not even going to yoga today!

End of Story? I filled up the gas tank, made sure I fully tightened the gas cap, and no more "Check Engine" light.

CarChip by DriveRight


(Yes, it's a little pricey: get a bunch of folks together and pool your funds, because all of your cars are going to need this at some point. However, it does alot more than tell you what thing the Check Engine light is for, so for people who want stats on their drives and their driving, this gadget is well worth the money.)

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Photography by Wan Chi Lau and Carolyn Donovan