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Taking mystery, anxiety out of 'check engine' light

Friday - 12/20/2013, 10:45am  ET

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Zubie provides drivers with specifics when the Check Engine light goes on (Zubie)

Deciphering the 'check engine' light

The Zubie system can help take mystery out of the intimidating indicator.

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WASHINGTON - The sudden illumination of a vehicle's "check engine" light is an anxiety-provoking moment for drivers.

The mind races: What's the matter? Do I need to pull over right away? And what is this going to cost me?

In part, the dread is based on the realization the scope of the problem won't be known until the car is in the hands of a trained -- and often expensive -- mechanic.

"The 'check engine' light has been incredibly insufficient in telling us what's going on," says Navin Ganeshan, of Zubie, a connected car service that helps diagnose repair problems and monitor a user's vehicles.

"With cars, there's still been a great level of opacity, or lack of transparency. It's still a black box to most of us," says Ganeshan.

Typically, the appearance of a "check engine" light only indicates that something is likely wrong, without any detail.

"At that point you're expected to take it into a mechanic," says Ganeshan. "And even just to do the diagnostic check, they usually charge you $150 or $160."

Subscribers to the Zubie service, which costs $99 annually, receive a matchbox- sized device, which plugs in under the dashboard. Users interact with the service through a smartphone app.

The smart device reads the On Board Diagnostics, or OBD codes, that mechanics use to determine problems in a vehicle.

Other less expensive scanners, some under $20, have been on the market for years, but Ganeshan says Zubie makes the information derived more user-friendly.

"We can tell you not only the code that came up, but what it means in plain English," says Ganeshan.

Some car owners fear the worst when the engine light comes on, and are worried about being taken advantage of, if they're not near a trusted mechanic.

"A really common example is people who get a code for the oxygen sensor going bad, but one of the most common occurrences of that is when your gas cap is not tightened properly," says Ganeshan.

Ganeshan says having more information about the problem before speaking to a mechanic is comforting to users.

"We will at least tell you how severe the problem is likely to be, and also the range of prices that you might have to deal with when you take it in for repair," says Ganeshan.

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