Know the history of the check engine light and why it is important for your car! Have you ever considered the origins of your car’s check engine light? Where did it come from? You might be surprised to hear that it’s come quite a long way from its inception in the 1930s. Interested in a quick history lesson? If so, read on.

How do check engine lights work these days?

Before diving in, let’s go over the mechanics. A check engine light is a warning issued from your car’s computer. It indicates a malfunction with your vehicle’s engine. It’s usually found on the instrument panel, and it lights up in an orange or red color. In some vehicles it will appear as a phrase, like “SERVICE ENGINE SOON”, and in others it will appear as an engine icon. As soon as this light is triggered, your car’s computer saves a diagnostic trouble code (DTC). This code represents a specific problem with your vehicle. Auto technicians use scan tools to read the DTC and identify what needs to be fixed.

Where did the idea of a check engine light come from?

The most primitive version of the check engine light was called an idiot light (real name), or a warning light. These lights were simple, binary tell-tales that only switched on when a vehicle was about to break down. Since it gave no advance warning of an engine malfunction, it wasn’t a very useful feature.

The first manufacturer to install an idiot light was the Hudson Motor Car Company of Detroit, Michigan. They began putting them in their cars sometime in the mid-1930s. Idiot lights were popular for many years, but they were eventually phased out in the 1980s.

Manufacturer-specific check engine lights

In the early 1980s, automakers began making vehicles with computerized engine controls. These cars came with a diagnostic system that detected engine faults. When an issue was detected, the check engine light was activated. However, there was a problem with this design. Since each automaker was using their own diagnostic system, nothing was standardized. Since there was no systematic way to diagnose vehicle issues, it often took a very long time for auto technicians to get to the root of the problem.

When was the check engine light standardized?

This was resolved in 1996, with a federal mandate to lower vehicle emissions through the use of an on-board vehicle diagnostics system. This new system, called OBD2, was required for all vehicles sold in the United States. Since all new cars had the same technology, a universal system of DTCs was established. This is the same system we use today. Because of this standardization, our skilled technicians at Dunrite Auto can identify engine faults in all vehicles, regardless of the make or model.

It’s easy to see how far we have come since the days of idiot lights. Today’s auto shops can pinpoint the source of engine issues in no time flat. Since today’s check engine lights get triggered for a variety of reasons, they often detect vehicle problems at their earliest stages. This ultimately saves time and money on repairs.

That covers everything you never knew you wanted to know about the check engine light. The next time you notice it, be thankful it’s not an idiot light. Consider it your vehicle’s way of letting you know it needs some extra attention, and give us a call.


Your Check Engine Light is On – Now What?

Check engine lights don’t make anyone happy. As soon as it flashes on, you know you have a problem. Check engine lights alert drivers to a number of vehicle issues, from simple to complex. The biggest mistake you can make is ignoring this warning. Instead, let’s talk about some steps you should take when you see the check engine light turn on.

Do I have to stop driving?

This is the first question most people ask when they see their check engine light. To determine whether or not you need to pull over, let’s go over some mechanics. The check engine light appears on your dashboard in one of two ways. It’ll either be blinking or not blinking. A blinking check engine light indicates a severe problem requiring immediate maintenance. When you see this, you should pull over as soon as possible. If the check engine light isn’t blinking, then you have a less serious problem on your hands. Although your car needs attention, you probably don’t need to pull over.

Either way, as soon as you see the check engine light, pay attention to how your car is performing. Is there anything happening that’s out of the ordinary? Some warning signs of a major engine malfunction are smoke, strange noises, and loss of power. If you notice any of these, stop driving and pull over right away. If you can, get your car towed to the nearest service provider.

Can I fix the check engine light problem myself?

Assuming you don’t have an emergency situation, there are a few things you can do to fix what’s causing your check engine light to turn on. The first thing to look at is your fuel cap. Something as minor as a loose or damaged fuel cap can activate the check engine light. Open up your gas tank and make sure the fuel cap is tightly secured. Taking these steps can turn off your check engine light, solving your problems. Another place to check is your oil dipstick. Make sure that it’s properly seated because this can turn on the check engine light.

Another option you may want to consider is an OBD2 scanner. When connected to your engine, these devices read diagnostic trouble codes, or DTCs. The DTC gets saved by your engine’s computer when there’s a fault detected in your car. Simply connect the OBD2 scan tool to your car’s data link connector, which can be found underneath the driver’s side dashboard can also activate the check engine light.

​Also be sure to check the oil fill cap. An unfastened oil fill cap. A good OBD2 scan tool can cost up to $100. These tools can help you to an extent, but they have their limits. If you’re familiar with DTCs, scan tools can give valuable information to help you figure out how to handle repairs.

The bottom line is, don’t panic when you see the check engine light. Instead, assess the situation. Make an informed decision about how to move forward, and above all, be safe. If you have a major issue or if the check engine light is flashing, pull over as soon as you can.

Dunrite Automotive can help you with all your check engine light needs. Give us a call at (952) 925-2020 to schedule your appointment today. Our experienced technicians are here to serve you.