I had just gotten my 2002 Lexus IS300 Sportcross, and had been only been driving it for a couple of days. It made it the 800 miles from South Carolina, and a few dozen more around New York, with nary a problem. And then, while sitting and waiting to pick up Raphael Orlove to go on a little trip, the check engine light went on. “CRAP,” I remember shouting to myself.
I, a moron, had apparently just bought a perfectly working car that immediately proceeded to kill itself. Or so I thought.
As soon as I could, I plugged an OBD reader into the little port under the steering column. It immediately spat out a code: “P0440.”
A quick lookup said that it was the evaporation sensor. In other words, my car had sensed that, somewhere along the fuel system, a minuscule amount of gasoline vapors were floating away from the car.
Did it smell like gasoline?
Was my fuel gauge lowering itself as my car sat there with the engine off, noxious fumes pouring from some line somewhere?
I replaced the fuel cap, which didn’t fix the error, some hoses were tightened under the hood, which eliminated the error for only a few weeks, tried just clearing the fault (at which point it would pop back up every three weeks, like clockwork), before finally just deciding to live with it. As far as I can deduce, there may be an ever-so-slight problem with something redundantly called a VSV valve (the “V” in “VSV” helpfully stands for “valve”).
Would my car explode as I drove along with this slight fault?
Would my engine eventually nuke itself, obliterated into smithereens by one tiny valve?
Would it affect my life in any possible way if I didn’t get it fixed immediately?
I’ll probably end up fixing it one of these weekends whenever I get a free minute, once the weather gets warmer. But for now, I have to drive around with that dumb yellow CHECK ENGINE light just glaring at me. “BROKEN BROKEN BROKEN,” my car metaphorically screams at me, just generally being very annoying. When it’s not broken. Not really, anyway.
And if something genuinely bad were to go wrong, and I really needed to check my engine?
Well then I’d be screwed, as the check engine light is already on for something dumb and inconsequential. My engine could explode, nuke itself, and be obliterated into smithereens by a real problem, which I would have no idea was coming thanks to that dumb check engine light.
What we need is two lights (please note, I’ve been informed by our own David Tracy that some cars will have a steady light for a minor issue, and a flashing CEL for a major issue, but this system is also flawed. My argument will continue, unimpeded). One for “this is annoying but won’t affect your life in any conceivable way,” and one for “GAAAAAAAAAH FIX THIS RIGHT NOW.”
The first one should be easy enough to dismiss with a hand wave. We can call that one just the “eh, wanna look into this?” light. And the other one, the EMERGENCY light, we can call that the “Check Engine” light.
Because the current system we have is just stupid.
UPDATE 4/25/18: Jason Torchinsky, my esteemed colleague who is of the opinion that check engine lights should be outright BANNED, informed me that perhaps one of the only cars to ever improve upon our dumb check engine light situation was none other than the Dodge Viper. As he noted back in 2013:
The dash cluster is dominated by a nice, full-color LCD that offers a high degree of customization, and most delightful to me, the Viper will not just throw a check engine light, but will actually give you the code and an actual, English description of the code’s meaning right there on the screen.
Yes, this is exactly what I’ve been calling for for over almost two years, and the Viper is the first car I’ve seen to implement it. A dedicated SRT engineer who used to race Neons named Erich is the man to thank, and I think we all owe him a big, collective hug.