July 13, 2020

Idiot Lights

• By John F. Chisholm •

My wife’s Subaru has a ‘Check Engine’ warning light on the dashboard.  Very likely your car does, too.  The one in my wife’s car came on this week.  Oh!  The joys!

This warning light’s purpose is deliberately vague.  Quite evidently, it was designed solely for funneling money to car dealers on a regular, repetitive basis.  That’s it.

How can I claim that?

The light in my wife’s Subaru comes on, predictable as clockwork, every 20,000 miles, regardless of how the vehicle is running.  It’s true.

I can ignore it.  Easily.  My wife can’t.  How very unfortunate.

My wife’s Toyota pickup is older.  Turning the key ‘off’ and then ‘on’ rapidly, three times within five seconds, activates a sequence of warning light resets on the instrument panel.  I hate to think of how much that warning lamp cost us before I learned that trick.

Vehicle manufacturers have since learned to make turning the ‘Check Engine’ light off much more difficult.  My wife’s Subaru requires a specialized computer with specialized software ― a diagnostic analyzer ― and the vehicle’s computer access code to turn it off.  Diagnostic analyzers are expensive ― very ― and even if we afforded one, the pass codes to access the software are proprietary information.  In other words, that ‘Check Engine’ light and the dealer working together are holding us hostage.

We have to pay them to turn the damn thing off.

Does being victimized like this fill you with the joy of capitalism?

Not me!

The flat tire warning lights on both her vehicles are a similar racket.  The sending units are part and parcel with the valve stems on all four tires on each vehicle.  They’re cheaply made but expensive to both purchase and replace.  That’s because it requires dismounting each tire individually before reinstallation and remounting.

When new, these units seal against the rims within a modern, tubeless tire using an ‘O’ ring.  Unfortunately, those seals degrade rapidly.  That’s right.  Shortly after installation, they inevitably begin leaking.  Again.

Think about that.  These sending units are causing the flat tire before alarming the operator of the impending, expensive inconvenience.

Does anyone other than me resent this?

My ’96 Dodge doesn’t have either of these features.  Neither does my ’97 Jeep.  I don’t have any trouble keeping their tires inflated, the oil and oil filters changed or any other standard, repetitive maintenance operation on schedule.

It’s clear that these warning lights aren’t conveniences.  They’re expensive inconveniences.  That being the case, why do customers go on buying new vehicles with these terrible, self-fulfilling prophesies contained within them?

Every modern vehicle has them.  That might be part of the answer.

My response to that is emphatic:  I don’t buy new cars.


My wife does.

She’s not foolish.  When these lights come on, she then demands that I get her car fixed.

And that’s what I’m stuck doing, over and over, time and time again.  It must be one of those tacit, unwritten agreements of marriage:  The sap gets stuck with the vehicle maintenance chores, regardless of who programmed the vehicle’s computer and for whose benefit.

That, in turn, drives me nuts (a very short trip).

It’s clear they don’t call them ‘Idiot lights’ for nothing.  What can I say?  That I’m married?  All I can do safely here is name the idiot: