Ever since 1996, On-Board Diagnostics generation two (OBD-II) has required all new vehicles manufactured in the United States to have self-diagnostic and reporting capabilities. This gives you access to the status of your vehicles’ systems in real time using a standardized series of diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs).
This is accomplished through a 16-pin connector mounted near the instrument panel that provides four-digit codes for four main areas: P for powertrain; U for computer; C for chassis; and B for body.
Diagnostic scanning tools make DIYing it so much easier – and here are apps that you can access from your smart phone to help you do diagnostics right. Use the app on the road, order the appropriate car parts and you’re off and running on your latest car repair.
Actron U-Scan and more
With U-Scan from Actron, you can discover the cause of the check engine light by plugging a device in your vehicle’s adapter and reading the relevant code definitions. With the QuickCheck™ feature, you can use your Android or Apple device to read the codes appearing on your vehicle, and then, when appropriate, erase them to turn off the check engine light. You can also monitor your emissions status, and maintain a log of vehicle tests and procedures and more.
Advanced features include:
- Powertrain enhanced data ($7.99 per vehicle or $15.99 for all these manufacturers for most vehicles that are 1996 or newer: GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota): Get access to Powertrain codes and definitions. U-Scan’s freeze frame data describes the vehicle’s conditions at the time when the trouble code first appeared. More than 300 sensor/data items are available.
- ABS codes and definitions ($5.99 per vehicle or $29.99 for all listed manufacturers): Discover the likely causes of ABS warning lights.
- CodeConnect® ($12.99 per vehicle or $39.99 for all vehicles): More than 4.3 million fixes are available in this database, verified by ASE-certified technicians. Note: You must first purchase the powertrain enhanced data and/or ABS codes and definitions before buying and using CodeConnect.
- Airbag codes and definitions ($7.99 per vehicle or $39.99 for list manufacturers): Access the most likely causes of airbag warning lights.
It never hurts to compare. In The 6 Best On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) Apps for your Car, you can get more information on other similar apps.
What’s next: car key apps?
In June 2015, the New York Times published an article titled The Future of Car Keys? Smartphone Apps, Maybe, predicting how the car key and fob might evolve. Right now, if you own a Tesla, BMW, General Motors or Volvo, you might already own a key fob that allows you to start the engine, unlock doors, turn on heat and monitor the battery remotely. With the PEPS keys (passive entry, passive start), you don’t even need to remove the fob from your pocket. Its very nearness to the car allows you to unlock doors with a touch, and to start the car with a button push.
Experts don’t believe that a smartphone app will replace a key, not when a slow data network or dead phone battery would keep you out of your car. Plus, who wants to pay a monthly data subscription plan, which would likely be part of the deal, if you only got what a car fob previously provided? Especially with the complications provided by slow data networks and dead phone batteries? What would be the point?
Hakan Kostepen, the executive director for product planning strategy for Panasonic Automotive Systems, says that keys will eventually carry driver preferences, such as seating positions and favorite audio choices, even when you’re in a rental car. A smartphone app could work with the key data to recommend places to visit, eat and so forth, based on your known preferences.
Finally, Audi and Volvo are experimenting with groceries and packages being delivered to car trunks and the owner being notified. Car key usage would be authorized for a one-time use.
Editor's note: What apps do you like? Which ones do you plan to try next? Leave us a comment below.