The “check engine light” considered harmful January 18, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , trackback
A recent Wired.com article discusses why the check engine light on modern cars is, at least, lame. As most readers already know, the check engine light is a little glyph somewhere on your dashboard that lights up whenever your car’s onboard computer detects some sort of engine fault. As Jason Torchinsky argues, to have a generic light that comes on when something goes wrong is rather uninformative. In this respect, it is like getting an “invalid input” error message after entering text into a field in a computer app or Web site. Since you do not know what the nature of the error is, the message is merely frustrating.
Of course, as Torchinsky admits, the driver could buy a special scanner to plug in to the car’s diagnostic system in order to read the error code and find out what the problem is. However, as he points out, not many drivers are likely to want to keep such a scanner around, or even feel confident about using it correctly.
In a way, the “check engine” light is worse than the “invalid input” message. In the case of the input message, the frustration comes partly from not being told how to correct the problem. The “check engine” light does, however, suggest a course of action: Take the car to the dealer. Torchinsky objects that this setup puts car owners at the mercy of mechanics:
By failing to provide this information to consumers, regular drivers — that is to say, those who aren’t going to ferret out the codes themselves, and then fix the problem — are beholden to dealerships and mechanics for information readily available in a product they’ve paid for.
The commercial purpose of the “check engine” light is, then, to create anxiety in drivers that can be relieved only by purchasing information from a professional.
Torchinsky points out that there are alternatives. Many cars today incorporate video screens into the dashboard. It would seem to be a simple matter for the designers to use those screens to display the diagnostic message that would otherwise appear on the special scanner.
Torchinsky’s complaint reminds me of a similar issue raised by Matthew Crawford. In his book Shop class as soulcraft, Crawford argued that automotive designers, in particular, cultivate a sense of learned helplessness in their customers. A new model motor bike, he points out, has a light that comes on when the engine oil needs to be topped up. The light is supposed to prompt the owner to take the bike to a dealer for remediation. Replenishing engine oil should be a snap for any bike owner, Crawford scoffs, so this design feature is merely a craven ploy to substitute a kind of passive consumerism for basic mechanical savvy among owners, to the benefit of dealers.
I suppose that one could argue that a “check engine” light, like a “change oil” light, is consistent with the tenants of user-friendly design that is much promoted today. The lights impose as little as possible on the car or bike owner, while directing them to take some appropriate action when a problem occurs. Crawford’s response is that designs should sometimes impose on their users; it is an opportunity to teach the user how their gear works. To miss this opportunity is to deprive the user of the dignity that comes with command of their gear.
Torchinsky’s objection falls into the consumer protection category. The “check engine” light simply places the car owner at a disadvantage:
Information is power, and by denying you this information, automakers are denying you power. If you’re driving along and that damned check engine light comes on, you have no way of knowing if it’s a minor problem — the gas cap is loose, for example — or you’re at risk of imminent engine failure. A generic check engine light also makes it easier for dishonest mechanics to take advantage of unknowing customers.
Maybe. Of course, most owners will not need assistance fixing a loose gas cap. However, many owners may simply be confused by a detailed error message such as “Secondary air injector: incorrect flow”, which is displayed in the picture in Torchinsky’s article. As cars get more complex and computerized, they will only become harder for most owners to understand.
So, I suspect that the situation needs more thought. Torchinsky is right that the “check engine” light is an inadequate design for today’s car. However, most drivers will derive little benefit from a technical description of some engine fault appearing on their dashboard. Instead, designers need to think about a model of the car’s systems, an idealization of some sort, that owners can understand and that will help them to take appropriate action when a problem occurs. In that way, owners can be educated as far as is possible, and saved from the machinations of their mechanics.