Blackbox for your car
Ever had that darn annoying little “check engine” light come on your dashboard? It costs a ridiculous 75 bucks just to “hook up your car and see what the computer says.” And that doesn’t include the cost to fix it, if anything really is wrong.
There’s a very cool little thing-a-ma-jiggy called the CarChip E/X that lets you do this yourself. Since 1996, thanks to emission control regulations, just about every car sold in the USA adheres to a protocol called an OBDII. This includes an interior plug which allows anyone with a computer hookup or data scanner (like the CarChip) to plug into the car’s computer and download information.
With the CarChip E/X plugged into your car, it records up to 300 hours of your driving data. In other words the CarChip acts like a car blackbox. Every trip you make is recorded. The information it records includes: time and date for each trip, distance, speed, hard accelerations and braking, and engine diagnostic trouble codes. In addition, you can pick four other parameters to record ranging from RPM, engine coolant temperature, throttle position, fuel pressure, battery voltage, etc. Using the included software, you can then graph out the data to show you how your vehicle is performing. And like an airplane blackbox, if you happen to have the misfortune of getting into an accident, the CarChip E/X will automatically generate an accident log showing the last critical 20 seconds of speed.
The OBDII port to plug the CarChip in is pretty easily found, at least on both my and my friends cars. It is typically located inside the car somewhere under the dash/steering wheel. Here’s a great site that helps you determine where to look by car model.
The CarChip software (Windows only) is relatively easy to figure out once you get the hang of it. It makes it pretty simple to get all the information from your CarChip and plot it out in charts and graphs. All you do is connect the CarChip E/X to your USB port, start the program, click on download, tell it which car you are downloading from (i.e. name the log file; separate downloaded info so you can track different cars), then wait for it to finish. Then you have several different views to look at the downloaded info.
If there are any error codes stored in your car, they will show up in the log file. Error codes can be googled. There are tons of sites where they explain what the code means. The current version of the software doesn’t appear to have an export to excel function, but you can do a cut and paste of the data tables and paste it into excel if you want to manipulate the data further.
You can monitor trends in your engine and hopefully be able to anticipate system failures before they occur. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy looking over the data dumps (charts, graphs) from this thing and chide my wife about how many hard stops or accelerations she’s made. Of course you can use this to monitor your kids driving habits. Because it records when it was installed and removed, they can’t remove the device to hide their driving.
This is really one cool tool that I will always have in my arsenal. It’s saved me and many friends several unnecessary trips to the dealer. And when I do have to go to the dealer for service, I’m more informed about what the problem is, and what work is probably going to be needed. Harder to get fleeced.
— Paul Lin
Reader Neil Enns has this great suggestion: “The CarChip E/X is definitely a cool tool, but there is a similar option that costs $0. All Shucks/Checkers stores (as well as most Autozones and probably every other car store chain of similar type) will read the fault codes out of your car for free. You just pull up and ask them to come out with their code reader and they’ll do it. I’ve done this many times with my two cars and it’s saved me the ridiculous $75 charge every time.” That’s great for sussing out error codes; if you want the black box driving data, you’ll need the chip. — KK10/17/05