Your smartphone: The mechanic in your pocket

You can use your Android or iOS device to gain access to a wealth of information about your vehicle’s operation.

hipster with laptop speeding along road
Credit: Thinkstock

Technology’s rapid progress is not limited to personal computers and smartphones --automobiles have become dramatically more complex over the past couple of decades.

Advanced safety and stability systems have become standard features, even on entry level cars. Increased fuel economy requirements and stricter emissions regulations have resulted in engines that require complex computer systems in order to operate at peak efficiency. This has led many a shade tree mechanic to pine for the "good old days," when a business card and a screwdriver were the only tools needed to gap the points and get a car running properly again. 

Fixing a car takes a different toolset now, but along with the increased complexity of modern engines there are additional features that make the diagnosis of problems easier. In fact, you probably have a powerful diagnostic tool in your pocket right now, just waiting for you to take advantage of it.

A modern Android or iOS device can tell you more than you might expect about how your car is performing, and it requires little expertise by the user to learn a lot about how their vehicle is performing -- and possibly identify small issues before they become major problems. 

On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) became a mandatory feature of cars sold in the U.S. market in 1996, although earlier versions were implemented as early as the late 1960s. With the 1996 model year, the updated OBD-II standard became universal across makes and models. This system is still in use and provides access to a wealth of information about a vehicle’s operation. If, for example, a sensor fails it will usually generate a fault code, and OBD-II will help you use that information to identify the likely culprit. The information is not limited to fault codes; you can also find data on MPG, fluid temperatures and sensor status. 

If you own a vehicle that is ODB-II compliant, you will need two things in addition to your Android device or iPhone to access this data: an OBD scan tool adapter and an application on your phone. The adapter will plug into the OBD port on your car. This port is usually easy to locate since it is mandated that it be placed within 2 feet of the steering wheel. Some of these adaptors use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to connect to a mobile device (or laptop). These adapters are relatively affordable; you can get an inexpensive one for around $20 on Amazon. There are many models available, but I suggest that you avoid the extremely cheap, generic adapters and look for one that can connect via Bluetooth to make things a little easier.

After you have purchased the scan tool adapter, you will need to get an app for your phone or tablet. Torque Pro is a good choice for Android users and costs $4.95 on the Google Play Store (a free version is also available). I have personally tested only Android OBD apps, but the OBD Fusion App for iOS devices has positive user feedback and is available for $9.99 from iTunes. If possible, you should double check for compatibility between your choice of adapter and app. 

Once you have the adapter and app, you should be all set to learn a lot more about how your car is actually running. Obviously, simply having an OBD scan tool and an app on your phone is not going to magically turn you into a master mechanic. That said, it can help you identify some problems that can be tackled with basic mechanical skills, reveal if your mechanic is being honest with you, and provide real-time information about fuel consumption and vehicle performance.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

To express your thoughts on Computerworld content, visit Computerworld's Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter stream.
Fix Windows 10 problems with these free Microsoft tools
Shop Tech Products at Amazon