CarChip will show how often you put the pedal to the metal


June 12, 2003|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

DID YOU EVER wonder what's going on under the hood of your car? By that, I mean what's really going on?

Well, maybe not.

So how about this - if you have a teen-age driver, wouldn't you like to know how fast he's going when he's on the road? Or whether he's burning rubber at every streetlight? And if he knew that you knew, would he be more careful?

Or consider what happens when the "check engine" light flashes on the dashboard. The owner's manual tells you to take the car to the service department. But you have no idea how serious the problem is: Will the car blow up tonight, or can it wait a few days?

You can address these issues, or just satisfy your automotive curiosity, with a nifty little gadget called the CarChip. About the size of a pack of old-fashioned razor blades, it plugs into an under-dash receptacle that's familiar to mechanics, but virtually unknown to the public (at least, it was unknown to me).

Once plugged in, the CarChip monitors the engine's internal sensors and stores the data on a built-in memory chip every five seconds or so.

When you remove the CarChip and hook it up to your computer, its software transfers the data and displays a full report on trip you've made.

The basic CarChip ($139) stores up to 75 hours of data and generates tables and graphs that show trip duration, minute-by-minute speed, average speed, maximum speed and incidents of heavy acceleration and braking.

If your "check engine" light comes on, CarChip will tell you what's wrong - in English. If the problem doesn't look serious, CarChip can reset the check engine light so you can see whether it crops up again (sometimes it's a fluke).

For $179, the more sophisticated CarChipE/X stores 300 hours of data. In addition to speed, it collects readings generated by five additional engine sensors.

You can pick the information you want from a list of 23 indicators, including RPM, throttle setting, engine load, coolant temperature, manifold pressure and the oxygen sensor readings (a frequent cause of "check engine" light flare-ups).

Should you have an accident, CarChipE/X will have stored the most recent 20 seconds of data, which is handy to have as evidence if you weren't at fault, but just as convenient to ignore if you were speeding.

CarChip's manufacturer, Davis Instruments of Hayward, Calif., makes testing equipment for professional mechanics and fleet managers, who have long used the On-Board Diagnostic (OBD) systems built into all cars sold in the United States.

Those systems were developed in the 1970s to monitor the automobile pollution controls required by the original Clean Air Act.

But over the years, OBD has morphed into an all-around diagnostic standard, now called OBD II, that tells a mechanic exactly what's wrong with an engine by transmitting numeric codes to a specialized computer.

Under federal law, every car manufactured since 1996 must have a standard OBD II receptacle under the dash within 3 feet of the steering column, and it has to accessible without tools.

When the "check engine" light comes on and you take the car to the shop, the technician will hook up his computer and figure out what's happening.

Most drivers never notice the OBD receptacle. I certainly hadn't. But when I checked under the dash of my Buick, sure enough, there it was, about 8 inches to the right of the steering wheel.

It may be harder to locate in other cars - I couldn't find it in my wife's Toyota until I held a mirror under the dash.

That's was the hardest part of using the CarChip. Once I located the receptacle, the CarChip slipped on without a fuss on and worked perfectly. So did the bundled software, which runs on Windows 95 or later versions and requires 5 megabytes of free hard disk space.

Looking over your driving performance on a line graph that records speed every five seconds can be a strange, out-of-body experience.

Although my first 10 trips produced no great faux pas, a pattern of squiggly speed lines showed just how jittery my gas-pedal foot was, even on a relatively empty Interstate highway. When I turned on the cruise control, the graph was virtually flat.

Conclusion: I can probably save gas if I pay more attention to keeping my speed steady on the highway.

But two CarChip features could stand improvement.

Although the software worked well enough, it has the feel of a program that was thrown together quickly and never quite finished.

For example, it displays tables showing readings of all the engine sensors you've monitored, but the only data it will graph is speed.

True, you can paste the data from any trip into Excel or another spreadsheet and create graphs to your heart's content. But that capability should be part of the product - especially at this price point.

The CarChip's physical interface with the computer is also clunky - a serial port connector that requires its own power supply. That means you can't download data to a laptop computer when you're on the road unless you're near an electrical outlet.

A model that hooks up to a computer's USB port - a more modern connection that most external devices use - would be better.

Still, this well-conceived gadget gives average consumers a convenient tool that only professionals had before.

It even got good reviews from my wife, who likes the idea of keeping a leash on heavy-footed teen-agers (with whom we've had some experience).

"I only wish it had a governor, so they couldn't go fast at all," she said.

For information, visit www. or call 510-732-9229.

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