Clunker in Garage Gets Called Out by CarMD: Rich Jaroslovsky

I just delivered some bad news to a colleague about a cherished family member: His wife’s 1999 Honda Accord is looking at a $1,000 repair bill.

The diagnosis came courtesy -- if that’s the right word -- of CarMD, an easy-to-use device that taps into your car’s onboard computer system, then lets you upload the results to a website that provides a more or less understandable description of anything that’s going wrong and an estimate of how much it should cost to fix. Think of it as a Mechanic-Speak-to-English translator.

The most obvious use for CarMD is when your check-engine or other warning lights come on; using it can give you a general idea of the problem, equipping you ahead of time for that conversation with the guy at your friendly neighborhood garage.

In addition, plugging it into a previously owned car you’re thinking of buying -- if the owner or dealer lets you -- might also provide useful knowledge. Of course, if the owner or dealer won’t let you plug it in, that might be useful information too.

The CarMD gadget, which costs $98.99, has been around for a couple of years. But it has recently undergone some significant enhancements: support for Apple Macs as well as PCs running Microsoft Windows, coverage for antilock-braking systems and air bags, and access to the technical bulletins that carmakers provide dealers and mechanics.

Cellphone Size

The device is about the size of a cellphone, with two buttons, a display screen and green, yellow and red LEDs. At one end is a plug that fits the diagnostic-computer port located in the passenger compartment of every car built since 1996. At the other end is a connector for a USB cable.

You’ll start at the CarMD website, where you enter your auto’s year, make and model, and see a diagram showing you the location of the computer connection. In my car, it was located in an easily accessible compartment below the dashboard on the driver’s side.

Once you plug the device into the port and turn the ignition, you’ll hear two beeps, telling you that it’s been properly connected, then four beeps, telling you that the computer’s contents, including any codes indicating problems, have been downloaded.

Those LEDs give you an early indication. If green, all’s well; if yellow or, especially, red, hold onto your wallet. But blinking lights and obscure codes on the display screen only tell you so much; it’s CarMD’s Web-based services that really provide the value.

Special Software

Taking advantage of those services can be a little cumbersome. First, you have to install special software on your computer that acts as a conduit for getting the information from device to Internet; it would be easier if you could just upload the data directly. Then you plug the gadget into a USB port on your computer, and await the verdict.

In my case, the news was good: Green indicator light, and a clean bill of health for my year-and-a-half-old ride. For my colleague, whose wife’s Accord recently began flashing a check- engine message: Not so lucky.

CarMD flashed a red light, diagnosed the culprit as the pollution-control system -- the Honda won’t pass its next emissions test, the site reported -- and suggested several potential fixes, in order of likelihood that they would solve the problem. At the top: replacing the engine-control module and evaporative emissions canister vent shut valve -- whatever those are -- at an estimated cost of $963.20.

There are some important limitations to CarMD. First, you can only use it on up to three cars at a time. The website will make you enter your car’s unique vehicle identification number; if you want to use it with a fourth car, you’ll have to contact CarMD and remove one of the previous vehicles from the account.

Reports for a Fee

In addition, you aren’t allowed to run more than six reports on the CarMD site per month. And while there’s no cost for manufacturers’ safety and recall announcements, CarMD charges for the technical service bulletins that often contain important information about how to fix or otherwise address mechanical or other issues. They cost $1.99 each, or $19.95 a year for all you want.

And, of course, it won’t pick up problems your car’s computer can’t detect.

CarMD says it is working on a number of enhancements, including a system to automate the process of substituting cars on an account. And eventually, the company hopes to assemble a network of mechanics who will honor the software’s estimates. For now, though, you’ll have to settle for feeling a little more knowledgeable -- even empowered, perhaps -- when you roll into the garage with the dashboard warning light glowing.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in New York at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

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