Every driver feels a sense of dread when the “check engine” light flicks on in their car. It is not just an alarming sign that something is wrong; it is also maddeningly vague. It could be caused by something simple like a loose gas cap, or a serious issue like a transmission problem that will cost thousands of dollars. In fact, more than 7,000 different faults can be behind that one warning light.
Until recently, the only way to find out the cause was to pay a mechanic up to $100 to connect a diagnostic device and read off an error code generated by the car’s onboard computer. But thanks to advances in miniaturization, drivers can now find out for themselves what’s wrong with their ride.
One of the leading devices in the market is FIXD, which contains similar technology to that used by mechanics but is a fraction of the cost. The sensor connects through an OBD-2 port that is just below the dash on most vehicles. It then transmits information about the issue to an associated phone app, which translates it from mechanic-speak into plain English that anyone can understand. FIXD, which works with any gas or hybrid car from 1996 onwards, also explains whether the issue is serious and needs immediate attention or can wait a while.
For many drivers, the most anxiety-inducing part about car trouble is not knowing how much it will cost to fix until they are presented with the estimate at the repair shop. Plus, there is always the question of whether the price is a fair one. In fact, around 70% of Americans worry about being overcharged for car repairs.
“Those nagging doubts about the bill are a textbook example of information asymmetry,” says FIXD’s CEO and co-founder John Gattuso. “Most drivers do not feel able to challenge a price because they know far less about their own car than the mechanic does. This is an especially acute problem for women, who studies have shown are more likely to be overcharged than men.”
Big data can help level the playing field. By leveraging the world’s largest database of certified repairs, FIXD sifts through information on thousands of similar vehicle issues and estimates how much most repairs should cost. That enables drivers to tell if the quote they receive seems about right, or if they should start asking questions and seek a second opinion.
FIXD’s premium option provides features such as prediction of likely issues based on a car’s make, model and age, as well as a function that determines whether it will pass its emissions test. Premium users can also access a mechanic hotline to ask any question, from simple things like what oil their car takes to more complex matters like how to approach some DIY work.
FIXD also provides alerts when regular maintenance like oil changes and tire rotations are needed – because the best solution to a check-engine light is to avoid seeing it at all.
Brock Jensen is a Los Angeles-based writer on behalf of FIXD.