Progress: Our New Vehicles Will Talk To Us Rather Than Show Us Idiot Lights When Something Goes Wrong

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Instead of displaying a mystery icon, why don’t our vehicles just speak to us when they have a problem?

We can remotely control rovers on moons and planets in our solar system. We make human cancer medicine inside of cloned Chinese hamster ovary cells. Yet, our five and six-figure price tag automobiles show us a tiny little mystery icon when there is a problem. The good news is that our vehicles are starting to talk about their problems.

The top of page image for this story is a heads up from a Mazda CX-5 that had 15,000 miles on the odometer. Rather than just wait until we couldn’t get into it anymore, it provided us with a polite notice that we should have the keyfob battery changed out. How refreshing! Automakers have for years been making tiny hidden keys part of these fobs so that after the battery died you could do a frantic Google search for a trick to get in and start your car (which you can find right here if interested). Apparently, it took Mazda to figure out that if the car could just warn you in advance of the battery needing replacement you may not have to have the emergency key dance routine at all.

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Next up is a new vehicle that we absolutely adored. Our tester was a pre-production model that was built before the model was released for sale, so we can’t ding the car for having a couple of small issues to report. And report the issues it did. In a very nicely organized drop-down menu. Those little annoying icons still appeared on our dash, but in the infotainment screen the car also showed the icon along with a title for the type of problem. Tap the drop-down and a more detailed overview of the issue appears described in plain English. Our car needed a minor sensor adjustment, and the car still ran just fine, so it was no big deal. But it sure was nice to know that by reading it in the crystal-clear infotainment screen rather than tearing into a six-inch-thick paper owner’s manual with 4-point font. At night. Without our reading glasses.

If you own a modern General Motors vehicle equipped with OnStar, you have access to a live operator who can explain trouble codes to you right now. If your vehicle displays a trouble code (idiot light) simply press the blue OnStar button. An OnStar representative will tell you in simple language what the code indicates and what action you need to take. We checked out OnStar’s Facebook page and found that owners are indeed using this feature. User Mike T. reported, “Just used it two weeks ago in my Cruze. Got warning about overheating yet temp gauge was showing zero. Called and they said it was showing a bad sensor. So after visually checking not overheating, felt better about the drive home at 3 am.”

Even better, you don’t even need to be in your vehicle to get a heads up that a problem is detected. OnStar can notify you on your smartphone. OnStar’s Jim Kelley, product manager for diagnostics at OnStar, says that the key to GM’s new system is modern telematics. “What made it possible was the introduction of OnStar 4G LTE,” Kelly said. “It allowed us to [increase our data volumes] and run it through predictive algorithms in order to glean patterns about future issues.” GM now has the ability to detect a problem starting in your vehicle and notify you before that problem requires a trip to a dealer. For example, a battery that is not keeping a charge, or that is being discharged while you are not driving. “We wanted to target the issues that most negatively impact drivers,” says Kelly.

The most common type of post at the CarTalk Community is that of a member looking to get an explanation of a warning light or trouble code. Thankfully, the days of needing a scan tool or owner’s manual to determine the cause of a simple problem are coming to an end.