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Cars of the future will be almost unrecognizable from those we drive today. They'll talk to each other using vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication systems. They'll have augmented reality (AR) dashboards. When you see a guy riding a bicycle, your AR dash will give you the bike's specs and price tag (in case you want to buy one). These cars may even fly.

Yet, with all the technological advances and changes to come, there is one device that is sure to remain intact and unchanged. No matter what they do or how they design them, cars – even in the year 2081 – will still have those annoying yellow "check engine" lights.

"Check engine" lights are the cockroaches of the automotive universe. They will survive when all around them perishes. A nuclear holocaust could occur and all that would remain would be "check engine" lights glowing and hundreds of billions of radioactive cockroaches staring at them wondering what they mean and how much it's going to cost.

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I was reminded of this the other day when the yellow "check engine" light went on in my trusty 2010 Dodge Grand Caravan (it's always on in my 1999 Camry). I'd just gassed up and there were no other signs of anything amok. The car was running fine. All was right in the world. Maybe my Grand Caravan sensed something nearing "not-suffering-from-dread" in me and decided to shake things up. Life was too almost not bad. And so, ping! On the yellow fellow burned bright.

I checked the Internet to see what might be amiss. The amount of information on offer was impressive. There are hundreds of sites dedicated to explaining the mysteries of the "check engine" light. Some also specialize in unravelling the origins of those big heads on Easter Island (world's largest Tiki bar) and Stonehenge (remnants of ancient oversized game of Jenga). I jotted a few down.

These are the five most common reasons for your "check engine" light going on:

  1. Catalytic converters need replacing. These guys convert carbon monoxide into harmless substances. What harmless substances? None of your business. They cost around $2,500 to replace.
  2. Your mechanic’s 15-year-old son needs braces.
  3. One of your spark plugs needs replacing. You know, what, since you’re already there you may as well replace them all. Now give your mechanic some money.
  4. Replace mass cashflow sensor. This is like your “mass airflow sensor,” which tells your car’s computer how much fuel to add based on the air coming through to the engine, but instead it tells your mechanic how much money you can spend on your car based on the line of credit you have at your bank.
  5. The “check engine” light went on in your mechanic’s car.

Still baffled, I did what millions of car owners do every day. I brought my car into the mechanics and said, "The 'check engine' light is on." My mechanic did what millions of mechanics do every day: he smiled wanly and got ready to fire up his computers. He said he'd call me later that day to tell me what the trouble was, if in fact, there was any.

The exchange got me ruminating. I was perturbed. What was it about the "check engine" light that I found so dismaying? Supposedly it's trying to be helpful. That was why the light exists – to signal when the car was not in safe working order.

The more I ruminated the more angry I became and then, in a flash of insight, the reason came to me: I hate the "check engine" light because it epitomizes the negative tone of all car-to-human (C2H) communication. It's always about what's wrong. The glass is always half-full. It's critical and complaining. Our cars are never happy.

When was the last time you put your key in the ignition and your car said, "Nice hair!" When was the last time a light flicked on with the words "You're Special" illuminated beside it? Has your car ever said, "You're driving well today, sir!"

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No. It's always "check your engine, slow down, objects are closer than they appear."

Late that afternoon, my mechanic called. The news was predominantly good. Real gearheads may have already determined the cause. As near as he could guess, the "check engine" light had gone on because, after filling up the trusty Grand Caravan, I had not screwed the gas cap on exactly right. This is a common cause of "check engine" illumination since the fuel vapours that can seep out as a result of a cracked or incorrectly secured gas cap can throw a car's system into flux.

I know that now, and it only cost me $49.99 plus tax. Next time, I'll check the gas cap. I have seen the light.

Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy

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About the Author
Road Sage columnist

Andrew Clark, an award-winning journalist, screenwriter and author, is Director of the Comedy Writing and Performance program at Humber College in Toronto. More


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