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Can we please update the Check Engine light?

by | May 24, 2022

If you have a cell phone in your pocket, your “phone” app probably has an icon that looks like an old-timey handset, like you’d find on a corded phone. That icon, of course, works best for those who understand that link. However, more often I am seeing an icon which much more accurately represents the appearance of a modern phone.

Old phone icon next to a new phone icon

The phone has changed, as has its silhouette. Image by Josh Seasholtz

The new version works because there are recognizable elements: a screen, a speaker, and a home button. And it’s certainly not alone; the “save” icon is still usually a three-and-a-half inch floppy disk. Now, this is an automotive blog, so let me get to the meat an’ potatoes here: if you take a look at the standard “Check Engine” icon, the included elements aren’t elements of a modern vehicle any longer. Here, take a peek:

Check engine icon

The source of consternation for motorists. The source of income for us. Image by Josh Seasholtz.

Let’s parse this thing out. OK, we see an engine block. So far, so good. Do drivers today have any idea what a block on its own looks like? This appears to be a conventional engine in which the crank runs longitudinal with the vehicle centerline and is likely to be in a rear-wheel drive vehicle, which is becoming a bit of a dodo-bird itself.

Starting at the front of this theoretical engine, I see what I presume is a mechanical cooling fan…which is also increasingly becoming an anachronism. Moving up top we see what must be a ring-style air cleaner sitting atop what is likely to be a carb or maybe a throttle body. Honestly, when was the last time you took a wing nut off an air cleaner lid? And then at the rear of this engine, I have to assume I’m seeing a flywheel attached, since normally a torque converter would stay with the transmission. I guess this theoretical engine is backed up by gears you’d need to shift yourself. The manual trans, too, is pulling a disappearing act in America. (Don’t get me started; that’s a different article.) So the three elements that make this thing reminiscent of an engine are by and large no longer found on engines.

So I think it would be fair to say this icon is in need of an overhaul. I’m not sure what it should be instead. Maybe the outline of a wrench? Or how about just an exclamation point in a triangle? A car on the back of a wrecker? (Scratch that. The “typical” silhouette would be a hook-and-chain style tow truck, which is largely useless in this age of plastic bumpers.) Maybe it should just say, “emissions,” since that’s really the system the MIL is drawing attention to.

The best idea is probably one I haven’t thought of. I think, though, it is time we retire the Check Engine light as we know it.

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