Service Engine Soon and the Little Red Light of Death


"Service Engine Soon." The blood-red light hung on the dashboard with electronic foreboding.

To unknowledgable eyes, that small warning light took on a demonic, ominous presence. A chill scuttled down my spine. A vulture squawked from somewhere in the backseat. The smell of brimstone, and thick oil well-over its 3,000 mile limit, filled the air. Ravens on the roof cawed, "Nevermore. Nevermore."

And the little red light transformed from:

"Service Engine Soon"

to

"Abandon Hope All Ye Who Sit Thine Posterior Upon Yon Seat of the Bucket."

It was a small font.

But alas, underneath this sense of impending, ugly, unwanted destiny, the daily commute still called me.

Responsibility superceded Conflagration.

"Soon," by necessity, had to become: "Not Now, Later: After I Yell at My Fellow Drivers Per the Daily Quota."

So with one eye on the road, and one eye alert for signs of sudden spontaneous combustion and an explosion worthy of four different camera angles, I drove white-knuckled to work.

That's when I made the call to my garage. This was our conversation.

Me: I need to make an appointment to have my car serviced.

Garage: What seems to be the problem?

Me: It's asking for you. It says Service Engine Soon.

Garage: Is the car losing power?

Me: No.

Garage: Is it stalling out in traffic?

Me: Er, no...

Garage: Don't worry about it. It's probably fine.

Me: But the red light... But the Service. And the Soon.

Garage: It's been raining a lot. It could be that.

Me: What, it doesn't like getting its tires wet? Does it know these are all-weather and not Jimmy Choos'?

Garage: Or did you get gas lately?

Me: (hesitantly).... Two days ago.

I am now thinking that for two days, perhaps the gas has been bubbling up in my engine in some quiet volcanic-like inferno, waiting for its one big moment to shower a city block with steaming hot magma and Unleaded Regular.

Garage: The gas cap might be loose.

Me: Service Engine Soon is a loose gas cap?

Garage: Or a wet engine. Unless it's losing power. Or stalling. Or steaming. But it should almost probably maybe be fine. Can I help you with anything else?

Me: But the light is still on...

It was taunting me with its insidious redness and vagaries.

Me: ...And I kinda want it to be Not On.

Garage: Wait a week or so and see if it doesn't dry out and go off. Check your gas cap. It'll be fine. Thank you for calling The Explaining Automotive Non-Sequiturs Help Center.

In a week, the Service Engine Soon light vanished. Along with my copilot the vulture, and those pesky roof-ravens. The brimstone scent required an airfreshener to really get it out.

So for all you folks out there who have yet to encounter the "Service Engine Soon" light, I share with you this advice: "Don't panic." Apparently the manufacturers of today's cars like a little wiggle-room in their dashboard warnings.

In fact, I hear the 2010 models, in addition to having the "Service Engine Soon" sign, also are being installed with the following alerts:

Objects in Your Dashboard May Be Less Helpful Than They Appear.

Keep Out of Reach of Children

WARNING: Deer Collisions May Dent Car Frame. Also Deer.

May Contain Nuts.

Friends, they're looking out for us. What more could we ask?

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19 comments:

Leeuna said...

haha. I hate a nagging car. I get enough of that from humans. Glad your red light went away. :)

C.B. Jones said...

"May Contain Nuts."

Squirrel warning system?

Jenn Thorson said...

Leeuna- It's a strange, strange thing. Makes you wonder how "Tighten Gas Cap" and "Engine Moisture" become "Service Engine Soon." :) And yep, about the nagging at least we can be grateful our cars largely do not chat with us.

C.B. Jones- Could be. With the squirrels in my neighborhood, that SWS (Squirrel Warning System) might be handy.

Chris@Maugeritaville said...

My last car went about 125,000 miles with that light on. No mechanic could figure it out.

Oh, and I'd like to know what the gas cap has to do with the engine. When it says "CHECK ENGINE", the gas cap is about the last thing I'd worry about. If it's so important, wouldn't a "YOUR GAS CAP IS LOOSE" light be a little more clear?

Jenn Thorson said...

Chris- Unquestionably so! It's as if the Great Gas Cap initiative was on some redevelopment Wish List and got tacked on or snuck in with engine modifications.

"Hm, can we put a sensor on the engine that can tell when the gas cap is loose? Because then we could tack that on as a part of the Service Engine Soon light functionality."

PS- "Check Engine" is just as bad. How can checking your engine tell you if your gas cap is loose? I ask you!

ReformingGeek said...

May Contain Nuts. I love it.

I think we should add: "Change the oil, you moron." No lights. Just the message. Apparently, some people just forget!

"Door is ajar. Door is ajar", chimes the car.

Sheesh. The door isn't a JAR!

Da Old Man said...

Often it really is the gas cap is loose. I could explain it using engineering principles that go into the design of your car.

But the easiest fix is duct tape. Just cover it right up.

Melanie said...

I drove a big chrysler for five years and the orange "check engine" light was lit the whole time. I sold it to a co-worker who has driven it for two years now and the check engine light still shines brightly and irrelevantly.

I think the "keep out of reach of children" would be an excellent warning sticker to put on the gear shift. Of course, two year olds can't read, so it probably wouldn't stop them from throwing 2 tons of steel into gear.

chyna said...

Mine just lights up for long enough to make me question my eyesight. Did it come on or didn't it, and why was there no mention of extremely low oil levels that one time? Cars are just out to drive us home and drive us crazy!

Jenn Thorson said...

Reforming Geek- I need that "Change The Oil, You Moron" light. I could totally support that.

Da Old Man- Duct tape fixes everything! Only, I think my car works better with gas in it. Funny, I know. :)

Melanie- How long before you totally normalized that orange Check Engine button? Maybe the Keep Out of Reach of Children light should be pictorial instead of words. I'd have to think about how that could be designed. A parent swatting a child's reaching hand, maybe.

Chyna- Heh, I can just see you sitting there waiting for it to come back on and sneak up on you.

nipsy said...

After just today getting my car back after it died for NO APPARENT REASON and with NO LIGHTS ON...I object!!!

How about these ones:

YOU LEFT YOUR BLINKER ON

TIRES NOT ONLY LOW ON AIR, BUT YOU ALSO FORGOT TO PUT THE SPARE BACK IN

3,000 MILES DOES NOT HAVE FOUR ZEROS, CHANGE YOUR OIL

Sue said...

I'm so glad I'm not the only one that can't screw a gas cap on right! LOL!

Jenn Thorson said...

Nipsy- All excellent suggestions! I'm particularly partial to the last one. I think I went for that four-zero record once with my first car, not knowing any better.

Sue- That particular time it was actually moisture under the hood-- (?!) but since I absolutely have done the gas cap thing. Something about the person behind you, waiting for gas and looking surly, that makes a gal move quickly from the gas cap without checking.

moooooog35 said...

I'm changing my wife's to:

'Service Husband Soon'

Every little bit helps.

conditionalcognition said...

First time here, and I like the way you tell your stories. I, too, used to see the check engine light as impending doom. My first car had a terminal illness that was first brought to my attention from this light. For a few years after that, I always took this light seriously. Then, I had several consecutive interactions with mechanics like the one in your story: "Just leave it for a while." So, now I just wait at least a couple weeks before I take it in.

Anonymous said...

My trusty Saturn spent most of it's life with that damn orange light on...freaking out passengers and being an un-looked for nightlight for those long winter night drives.

I took it to the shop when it first appeared and was told it was reporting a failure.

What failure you ask?

My Check Engine light fuse was broken. And...for the low price of $150.00 I could have the dash removed and the fuse fixed.

Needless to say...I traded my well loved car in with that little light still happily shining...

Sue H

Jenn Thorson said...

Mooog- Given how long those lights end up lit there, it might serve as helpful reminder.

ConditionalCognition- And I do thank you for visiting and for the comment, too. The blase "just wait and see" attitude of the mechanics is the thing that really throws ya. Maybe the light needs to be more of a pastel... have less sense of urgency about it.

Sue- That's hysterical. It WAS in fact on my Saturn SL2 that this happened. And in your instance WAY too pricey to worry about fixing! $150! Sheesh!

jay said...

I think those little 'helpful' warning lights are positively dangerous. OH's car lights up like a whole storeful of Christmas lights when he turns on the engine. Recently, some warning light or other came on and he spent several miles on a single track, truck-laden road at speeds of around 60mph, gazing at the dash instead of the road, trying to read what it said.

Turned out to be a smudge, not writing, and we never did find out what the darned thing meant. It went out and we couldn't remember exactly where among the zillions of lights it had been. LOL!

chyna said...

My dh/bf Z28 had that orange night light too. he ended up putting a piece of electrical tape over it because it didn't match the rest of the dash lights. ;)

Give me gages anyday, I'd rather watch to see if my oil pressure is low than rely on the car to decide that perhaps there is a problem.

Don't laugh Jenn, I did sit there and wait for it to happen again the first time or two it happened. How embarrassing.