Art Jacobsen talks about SAM
My wife had parked behind me in the driveway. And when I moved her car, that's when I noticed it - the ominous glowing red "check engine" light.
I went inside to ask her how long it had been on.
"I don't know. A few days," she told me, shrugging as she and my daughter Bonnie kept their eyes on a college basketball game on TV.
"It goes off and on all the time," she said. "I just ignore it."
Many years ago, when a "check engine" light came on, it meant one thing - you immediately needed to pull over to the side of the road and call a tow truck.
Now a "check engine" light can come on for about 2,000 different reasons, including for something as simple as forgetting to tighten your gas cap after fueling.
"Consumers don't have any understanding what the problem is, why the light is on, what the severity is and how they get it fixed," Art Jacobsen says.
During the last two years, Jacobsen, program director for Smart Auto Management LLC in Tucson, Ariz., has developed a solution for drivers worried about those warning lights.
It's a self-service diagnostic scanning kiosk, called SAM, that tells you what those warning lights mean before you see a mechanic.
For $15, SAM will scan the various diagnostic computers under your hood.
It will find out what's wrong.
It will give you a paper printout in layman's language rather than technical mumbo jumbo.
And it will alert you to problems that might not yet have set off the warning lights, such as a transmission that's only starting to have trouble.
Drivers can get small problems fixed before they become problems costing thousands of dollars.
How it works
To get the information, you pull up to the SAM kiosk and don't even need to pop the hood.
"You don't have to get your hands dirty," Jacobsen said. "It's analogous to plugging into a USB port on a computer."
There are four steps:
¢ You first insert a credit card into an ATM-like device. The credit card is scanned, and the payment information is received.
¢ A small door opens, giving the customer access to a bar code scanner, like those used at grocery stores. A screen instructs the customer where to find the bar code that contains the vehicle identification number. The customer then scans the bar code, a 17-digit number, which tells SAM the vehicle's make, model, engine displacement and other information. The customer then returns the bar code scanner to the kiosk.
¢ Another door opens, revealing a 16-pin diagnostic device. The customer plugs the device into a standard port found in all 1996 and newer vehicles.
A line drawing is displayed on the screen showing the port's location in that particular vehicle, usually under the steering wheel near the kick panel.
"The computer takes everything from there," Jacobsen said.
¢ The customer starts the vehicle. SAM begins interrogating each of the vehicle's several computers independently. It then downloads any of the "fault" codes, even those that don't set off a warning light.
It also downloads "predictive" or "pending" codes that tell you something's starting to go wrong so you can fix it before it becomes a major problem.
Once the information is downloaded, you unplug the device, return it to the kiosk and a report is printed for you.
The report gives a summary of how many fault codes were found, if any.
"We give them the mechanic's standard language as well as the layman's language as to what's wrong with the vehicle. So it's something they can understand and take action on," Jacobsen said.
The printout also lists the possible causes of the fault code that's being exhibited.
Customers then can use the report to shop around for repairs at a car dealer, a garage or a muffler repair shop, Jacobsen said.
SAM is the first diagnostic device that reads information for all makes and models, he said. Even auto repair centers have to buy separate devices from each manufacturer.
To launch SAM, Jacobsen has enlisted one of auto racing's greatest drivers, Mario Andretti.
Andretti went around the country last month to talk about the first 200 SAM kiosks being deployed in five markets: North Carolina, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Northern California.
Jacobsen hopes to have 1,000 units rolled out across the nation during the fourth quarter of this year.
He's looking at joining with large chains, such as Jiffy Lube or self-service gasoline stations. He's not yet sure when the first ones will arrive in the Kansas City area.
My wife waved off my concerns and kept watching the game.
She pointed out that she has a pretty good track record about warning lights - she's driven the same car for more than a decade.
And she said she knows it's time to stop the car if the heat light goes on or the oil light starts glowing.
But when the "check engine" light comes on randomly, she figures it's just some kind of an emissions problem.
"What do you expect? My car has 199,000 miles on it," she said, laughing. "It's going to have the 'check engine' light come on. I'm not too worried about it."