Home » Every Car Should Allow You To Decode A Check Engine Light As Easily As This Motorcycle Does

Every Car Should Allow You To Decode A Check Engine Light As Easily As This Motorcycle Does

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For decades, car and motorcycle manufacturers alike have been feeding vehicle owners bad information. I’m not talking shifty marketing speak, but the idiot light. Modern vehicles have a fairly decent grasp of what’s happening under the hood, and when something happens they want to tell you what’s going on. However, the vast majority of vehicles out there just use a combination of ominous lights to signal problems. If a check engine light comes on, you have to plug in a scanner to even get an idea of what’s going on. In this world where everything has a screen, that’s absurd. And that’s why Zero Motorcycles does something awesome that, so far as we can tell, is still extremely rare today.

It won’t come as a surprise to many of our readers that I’m a moderator and an administrator at multiple Smart Fortwo groups and forums. I’ve known the ins and outs of these cars for over 16 years, so I try to use my knowledge to help others out. Otherwise, the complete and total history of the Smart Fortwo will just live rent-free in my head.

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Vidframe Min Bottom

One of the most common posts I see is when someone’s Smart encounters a problem of some kind, causing the check engine light to illuminate. The person then takes a picture of the check engine light, uploads it, and asks the group what the problem is. Check this out below:

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We as car enthusiasts already see the immediate problem. What’s the code? You can’t diagnose a car’s issue from a vague picture of a check engine light on Facebook. The person on the other end of that post often isn’t a car enthusiast. They have no idea what the check engine light means.

In my experience, now you’re instructing this person to drive to an auto parts store to get a code scan. If you’re lucky, they return with whatever codes were pulled. A lot of times they don’t because that’s stressful and they have no idea what they’re doing. I can’t blame them. I may love cars, but for many, it’s just an appliance.

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In the end, I’m left frustrated, wondering what’s the point of the check engine light if the car’s not allowed to tell you what the code is. Every car sold today has some sort of display, be it for infotainment, a backup camera, or gauges. Even your old Chevy Trailblazer has a screen technically capable of telling you something, anything more than that pointless check engine light.

David Tracy

I understand that this isn’t a huge issue in the grand scheme of things. Basic code scanners can be bought from a million different places for less than the price of a decent meal at a restaurant. But the everyday person, like my parents, don’t know that. They’ll just roll around with the light on wondering what it is or take it to the dealer. It took years to teach my mom how to use a computer.

Introducing her to a diagnostic scanner would be another learning curve that’s way longer than it needs to be.

It shouldn’t be this way. Your car knows something is wrong with it, so it should be able to broadcast that to you, no tools needed. This is a take Jason Torchinsky wrote back in 2012, and honestly, the argument against the check engine light is even stronger today now that everything comes with a screen of some kind.

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Before we continue with the wonderful solution I’ve found, here’s Jason’s short explanation for why cars warn you with a worthless amber outline of an engine, anyway:

This has its roots, of all places, in the 1969 Volkswagen Type III, one of the first cars with electronic fuel injection. The “electronic” part of that meant that there was a crude computer brain that managed the system, and could scan for error conditions. Other manufacturers soon had their own systems, and by 1996 an actual, standardized system, called OBD-II, was developed and mandated by law for inclusion in all cars sold in the USA.

OBD-II is actually a terrific system. A global standard for helping to diagnose car issues, with standard connectors and error codes? What’s not to like?

What’s not to like is that when something goes wrong, all the average motorist sees is that little drawing of an engine bisected by a lightning bolt. And all that tells them is basically nothing. The “check engine” light is the MIL (Malfunction Indicator Light) of the OBD-II system, and illuminates whenever a fault is detected. To see exactly what sort of fault takes a “special scanner” that plugs into the OBD-II connector.

With that out of the way, Jason and I have found two wonderful exceptions to the rule. An engineer over at SRT made sure the Viper actually read out trouble codes to you. Now I’ve found one more.

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For the past 10 months, I’ve been testing a 2023 Zero DSR/X. It was smooth sailing until winter, when the bike was totally taken out by the week of subzero temperatures the Chicago area experienced in January. I don’t want to think about ice much longer so let’s keep talking.

The freeze absolutely murdered the motorcycle’s high-voltage battery and 12-volt battery. I first had to charge the 12-volt battery just to get the computers to wake up. Then I had to heat up my rented garage to at least 32 degrees before the high-voltage battery bothered to join the chat. Overall, the motorcycle was outrageously unhappy. The first boot after the subzero freeze presented me with a check engine light. But there was a twist.

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When the bike booted up, a bunch of errors popped up on the screen with simple explanations. The screen warned of a throttle fault, and a dying 12-volt battery, among other things. Frankly, this was amazing. It could have just given me the check engine light and left me to figure out what’s going on.

Back in the day, some cars with early diagnostic systems like OBD1 used a sort of Konami Code with your key to get into the correct mode. Then the check engine light flashed a sort of Morse code. Some cars used a little light to do the same, or in the case of my bus, a freaking beeper. Sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference between the beep for error code 44 and error code 77, I tell you what. This is so much better!

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Even better was the fact that I had even more options to view the errors. The left side of the handlebar has a selector switch to bring up the bike’s menu. While you’re in there you could tell the bike to charge longer, swap around your gauges, look at performance data, and more.

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But the coolest part for me is the fact that you can look at stored error codes. The screen should give you a code and a short description of the error. If you want to know more, pop open your copy of the owner’s manual and it’ll give you a longer explanation of what each code means. While it’s not a full diagnostic tool, it points you in the correct direction without any special tools or anything other than your fingers and 30 seconds of time.

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If you think the bike is wrong, and sometimes it is, you can open a menu and clear the codes from the bike itself and go on your merry way. Sometimes, if you crank the throttle before the green ready light comes on, you’ll get the throttle fault. It’s super easy, barely an inconvenience to clear that.

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This is the kind of system Jason has been advocating for. Zero Motorcycles, unlike the vast majority of the world’s automakers and motorcycle makers, trusts you with knowing what your motorcycle thinks is wrong. It’s incredible because if you’ve been riding for long enough, you know that pulling codes from a motorcycle can be hard, sometimes involving jumper pins or other tricks. None of that is happening here. You just flip through a menu and look at the code for the answer. Your owner’s manual can then tell you more. Knowledge is really power here.

Zerodocumentation

So, I’m left coming to the same conclusion as Jason. The check engine light as it exists today is garbage and should be changed. In its place should be a system that easily tells you “hey, buddy, I’m feeling a bit broken today, care to check out my throttle?” The systems are already there, the manufacturers just have to do it.

But don’t do it just for us car enthusiasts. Do it for the person who doesn’t care about cars. It breaks my heart to read when a car or motorcycle owner has no idea what to do with a check engine light.

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Or worse, I sometimes read stories of when a vehicle owner takes their car to a shop and ends up thousands of dollars poorer, just to find out that they paid for work that was totally unnecessary. They had no idea their cars didn’t need all of that work, but they went into it blind. If their car told them what was wrong, they could at least level the playing field against a potentially bad actor of a mechanic.

There have been times I drove to a Smart owner’s house to help them diagnose a problem before they took it to a shop. It shouldn’t have to be that way.

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So, I land on Jason’s side of pleading for any lawmakers that will listen to push for a mandated system that allows a car or a motorcycle to give them more than those so-called idiot lights. Come on, automakers and motorcycle manufacturers, your vehicles already know something’s wrong. Just allow them to tell us.

Until then, this is another thing I applaud Zero for doing. Zero Motorcycles doesn’t have to let you know what’s wrong, but it does, and that’s cool. Every vehicle should be like this.

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Ben
Ben
29 days ago

I have a bluetooth OBDII reader in every car and Torque Pro on my phone for exactly this reason. It has saved me some stress on a few occasions when a code got thrown in the middle of a vacation and I was able to find out that it wasn’t anything serious.

However, there’s another insidious problem creeping in, which is that manufacturers have been skirting OBDII requirements for a long time now and often the OBDII codes are not that useful. You need manufacturer-specific software to read the ECU-specific codes, which are not mandated to be consistent or user-visible. We need OBDIII that has more open-ended requirements so manufacturers can’t say “well, ADAS isn’t covered by OBDII so I don’t have to provide codes for it”.

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
29 days ago

This is something that really pisses me off. When OBD2 was introduced, 7-segment displays were already everywhere and the electronics in place were perfectly capable of using those displays for alphanumeric communication; manufacturers always kept that information hidden under hard to access error codes and warning light combinations on purpose – or even worse, using the available 7-segment displays for vague “service car” messages. But it’s an especialy egregious “fuck you” to customers in an era of multiple computers integrated into the car and hi-res screens all over the place. Cannot wait for car OS hacking to become a common thing.

Last edited 29 days ago by Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Jim Stock
Jim Stock
29 days ago

https://www.harborfreight.com/search?q=obd2%20code%20reader until manufactures do something about this just keep one in the car and get one with an erase button. https://www.harborfreight.com/search?q=obd2%20code%20reader

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
29 days ago

I keep a $200 code reader under the seat of my jeep wrangler (because jeep) and gave my kid for their kia soul. I get if the check engine light is mandatory legally but so much more information could be given to drivers.

PlatinumZJ
PlatinumZJ
1 month ago

The Pioneer head unit I installed in my ’09 Grand Cherokee included an OBD-II connector, and was advertised as including screens to show vehicle information – tire pressure, various engine temperatures and pressures, and even a little gauge for showing your 0-to-60 time. There’s also a little Check Engine button that shows up when the vehicle’s check engine light comes on; it displays the actual codes when you touch it.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
1 month ago

Brilliant point, while the universal nature of ob2 should be maintained there’s no reason that a modern car should t be able to do 90% of the stuff that required a scan tool 10+ years from the infotainment screen or dash or whatever.

ProfPlum
ProfPlum
1 month ago

As my ’04 Jeep Grand Cherokee (WJ) got older, it would throw an occasional code. If I wasn’t at home to use my reader, you could get the trouble codes on the odometer by doing an on/off with the ignition key three times. The fourth time, switch the car to “on,” and the odometer would show the codes. At the end of the code list, or if no codes were there, “Done” would be displayed.

The Clutch Rider
The Clutch Rider
1 month ago
Reply to  ProfPlum

my 05 legacy had the same, but you had to connect 2 connectors above the fuse box, turn ignition on and off and press the trip button. It would display all the codes, not just the P ones.

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