When’s the last time you’ve thought about all the features your car has to offer? Have you ever thought about how they came to be? Consider the check engine light. What’s the story there? Where did it come from? Today we’re covering the complete history of this handy invention. Stick around to find out everything you didn’t realize you wanted to know about the check engine light.

How exactly does the check engine light work?

Before we get started, let’s go over a few things. A check engine light is operated by your car’s computer system. It’s a warning light that appears on your dashboard when there’s a problem with the engine. The light is usually red or orange in color, and will sometimes be blinking. If the light is blinking, it indicates a serious issue needing immediate resolution. If the light is not blinking, it indicates a minor issue that you should get checked out when you can.

In some cars, the check engine light appears as a small picture of an engine. In others, it appears as a phrase, such as “SERVICE ENGINE SOON”. Either way, you’ll know it when you see it. Once the light is activated, your car’s computer saves a fault code. A scan tool reads the code to pinpoint why the check engine light was triggered.

When in History and why was the check engine light standardized?

The check engine light as we know it was the result of a federal mandate to lower vehicle emissions. In 1996, the U.S. government required all new vehicles to have the same diagnostic system, called OBD2. OBD2 detects emissions problems in vehicles. This resulted in the standardization of engine fault codes. Because of this standardization, our skilled technicians at Dale Feste Auto can diagnose vehicle issues on any make or model.

History of the Check Engine Light

Before 1996, no standardized system for engine issues existed. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, manufacturers started producing cars with computerized engine controls. These vehicles had check engine lights and fault codes, but each system was unique to the automaker. As a result, it took ages for auto technicians to perform vehicle diagnostics.

The earliest form of the check engine light was known as an idiot light or warning light. Like check engine lights, the idiot light was triggered by vehicle issues. However, there was one major difference. Idiot lights didn’t give much of an advance warning before the vehicle broke down. It wasn’t really helpful because it didn’t allow for any time to solve the issue before a mechanical failure.

The Hudson Motor Company of Detroit, Michigan was the first automaker to install idiot lights in their cars. This started sometime in the mid-1930s. They were a prominent vehicle feature for several decades, but were ultimately phased out in the early 1980s.

Luckily, we’ve made a tremendous amount of vehicle improvements since the 1930s. We now have a centralized system to detect and diagnose engine issues. Today’s check engine lights give enough lead time for preventative maintenance. Resolving minor car issues ultimately prevents more serious problems down the road. This saves both time and money on auto repairs.

That completes our brief history of the check engine light. We hope you learned something new. The next time you notice it, think about how far it’s come. Thankfully, we aren’t living in the idiot light days of the 1930s. When that check engine light turns on, think of it as your car’s way of telling you she needs some extra care, and reach out to us.


What to Do When You See Your Check Engine Light Turn On

No one wants to see it. When your check engine light comes on,you know you have a problem on your hands. But, you don’t know how severe it is. Check engine lights can indicate a variety of problems, from minor repairs to major overhauls. No matter what, don’t ignore it. Let’s talk about what you should when you see your check engine light turn on.

Should I stop driving?

The first thing you need to think about is your safety. Should you pull over, or is it okay to keep driving? Here’s what you need to know. The check engine light illuminates in one of two ways. If you have a major issue, it’ll be flashing. When you see this, your safest bet is to stop driving as soon as you can. If the check engine light isn’t flashing, it’ll just show up illuminated on your dashboard. If that’s the case, it indicates a less serious problem.

Regardless of how your check engine light appears, examine your surroundings. Do you notice any obvious signs of a major issue? Loss of power, engine smoke, or strange noises coming from your engine are all hard to miss. Use common sense. If you experience any of these, you probably have an imminent breakdown on your hands. Pull over and seek help. If you can, get your car towed to a nearby service provider.

Can I fix the check engine light problem myself?

Assuming you don’t have a catastrophic breakdown on your hands, there are a few steps you can take to troubleshoot your check engine light issue. The first place to take a look at is your oil dipstick. Make sure it’s properly seated and that the oil fuel cap is fastened correctly. Taking these steps may result in deactivating your check engine light.

The next place to check out is your gas tank. Believe it or not, something as simple as a loose fuel cap can trigger your car’s check engine light. Take a look at the fuel cap and make sure it’s screwed on all the way. Also, check to see if you notice any cracks or damage to the fuel cap, as this can also turn on the check engine light. Addressing these minor issues can turn off the check engine light.

OBD2 Scanner

Buying an OBD2 scanner is another option to consider. When connected, this tool reads out the diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) that triggered your check engine light. All you have to do is hook up the scanner to your car’s data link connector. This is usually located beneath the dashboard on the driver’s side.

The price of a good quality OBD2 scanner is around $50 to $100. The drawback to them is that OBD2 scanners don’t give specific information on what needs to be repaired. The codes can give you an idea of what’s going on, but they don’t tell the whole story. However, OBD2 scanners can give you a pretty good idea of how severe your problems are. Knowing this can help you figure out how to move forward with repairs. When you see the check engine light, don’t panic. Analyze the situation and make an informed judgment on how serious the problem seems. If you have a major issue, put your safety first and pull over.

Dale Feste Automotive can help you with all your vehicle needs. You can ​schedule an appointment online​, or give us a call at ​(952) 938-9808​. Our experienced technicians are here for you.