I just delivered some bad news to a colleague about a cherished family member: His wife's 1999 Honda Accord (HMC) is looking at a $1,000 repair bill. The diagnosis comes 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 an almost-plain-English description of what's wrong. It also provides an estimate of how much the work will cost.
The CarMD gadget, which retails for $98.99, has been around a couple years, but it has recently undergone some significant enhancements. It now has support for Macs as well as Windows PCs, coverage for antilock braking systems and air bags, and extra-cost access to the technical bulletins that carmakers provide dealers and mechanics.
The CarMD is about the size of a cell phone, with two buttons, a display screen, and green, yellow, and red LEDs. At one end is a plug that fits the diagnostic-computer port in the passenger compartment of every car built since 1996. The CarMD website, where you enter your auto's year, make, and model, displays a diagram showing the location of the computer connection. Once the device is plugged into the port and the ignition is on, four beeps will indicate that the computer's contents have been downloaded.
Those LEDs give you an early indication. If green, all's well. If yellow or, especially, red, hold on to your wallet. Blinking lights and obscure codes on the screen tell you only so much. It's the simplicity of CarMD's Web-based services—explaining the codes and estimating costs—that really provides the value, even if taking advantage of them can be a little cumbersome: You'll need to install special software on your computer to get the data from device to Internet, and you can't use one CarMD with more than three vehicles.
My year-and-a-half-old ride got a clean bill of health. But CarMD diagnosed my co-worker's Accord as having a faulty pollution control system—the Honda won't pass its next emissions test, the site reported—and suggested several potential fixes.
Eventually, the company hopes to assemble a network of mechanics who'll 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 light glowing.