A handy way to find what ails your car

CarMD reads auto's computer, lights up with coded diagnosis

Plugged In

November 02, 2006|By Craig Crossman | Craig Crossman,McClatchy-Tribune

When the "Check Engine" light appeared on my car, I made a beeline to the mechanic. He replaced the gas cap and said all should be well.

The next morning, the Check Engine light remained on. This time, I was told the pressure in the gas line wasn't properly adjusted and a sensor had to be replaced. Again, I was told the light would be out by the next morning. It wasn't.

Finally, on the third trip back to the dealer, an additional inspection revealed yet another faulty part that was replaced - and this time, the light went out.

What if I had some kind of handy-dandy device that I could have plugged into my car that could have detected what the problem was before I went back to the dealer three times? Well - now there is, and it uses your computer and the Internet to make it all happen.

Three lights

CarMD is a hand-held tester that links to your car's onboard computer. All cars made from 1996 on by law must have a computer data port that monitors emissions and other mechanical functions. It's similar to the diagnostic devices used by mechanics but doesn't require the training or knowledge of an automotive specialist to use it.

There are three colored status lights on the CarMD. If the green one glows, then all is OK with your car. If the yellow one glows, more than likely there's something wrong and it should be checked out. And if the red light is lit, then there's something that requires immediate attention. It does have a digital display readout that shows more detailed error codes if you want to further analyze what is happening.

The included instructions show you the most likely locations where the data port is located - usually below the steering wheel. You simply plug the CarMD in and wait for two beeps to know that it is properly connected and communicating with your car's computer. When you hear four more beeps, the CarMD has finished and you may remove it to look at the status lights.

Test before buying

If you want a more detailed report, plug the CarMD's USB connection into your computer. It will launch your browser and log into the CarMD Web site. It will transmit its data and you will receive back a screen that offers a detailed report as to what most likely is wrong with your car along with possible fixes and how much it will most likely cost for the repair.

In addition to using a CarMD on your own car, this could prove very handy when you walk onto a used-car lot. After the sales pitch, just plug in the CarMD and get the real story before you make that important purchase. Another useful application is to plug in the CarMD before an extended road trip. It may save you from finding yourself pulled off the road waiting for a tow truck.

Granted, the CarMD can't save you from all automotive malfunctions. CarMD advises you to have regular car checkups, check your tire pressure and maintain a proper vehicle inspection schedule. The CarMD works only with a Windows-based computer at this time and sells for $89.99.

Craig Crossman writes about computers and technology and is host of "Computer America," heard on the Business TalkRadio Network and the Lifestyle TalkRadio Network.

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