CarMD: Health Care Reform for Your Vehicle?

CarMD Vehicle Diagnostic Tool

Of all the possible frustrations of daily life, issues related to car repair certainly rank among the frontrunners. Most folks have neither the time nor the equipment (even if they are mechanically inclined) to accurately diagnose what’s ailing their vehicle. So dropping off a problematic vehicle at the dealership or local repair shop can almost seem like writing a blank check—a pretty scary proposition from where I sit.

That’s where CarMD comes in… This is a simple diagnostic device that plugs into your car’s computer system and can read codes generated by the myriad advanced sensors in your ride. An engine light can mean anything from a loose gas cap to a blown piston ring to a cylinder misfire. All vehicles since 1996 have something known as an On-Board Diagnostics II (OBD-II) port. This is a small socket-like connector typically found under the dash or integrated somewhere in the center console. And this is what CarMD uses to “talk” to your vehicle and find out what’s really going on. It can even access your ABS (anti-lock braking system) and SRS (safety restraint system) codes and can handle diesel models as well as hybrids.

Upon receiving the unit, the first order of business was installing the software on a Windows and Mac laptop for test purposes. Both installations were simple and problem-free. When the device was connected for the first time to the PC, a pop-up window indicated that a newer version of the software was available for download. Not only did clicking’ yes’ provide the latest version of the application but also updated the firmware on the unit itself. Done and done…

Next, we signed up for a free online account and began registering the vehicles we planned to test – a 2001 Acura CL-S and a 2002 BMW 530i – which required entering the VIN, either manual or automatic designation, and the mileage. The CarMD VIN decoder then populated the manufacturer, make, model and engine type and all we had to do was fill in a vehicle nickname and confirm. This took us to the Staying Healthy Section where you can view all of the Technical Service Bulletins by system type along with any Safety Recall Notices. Each vehicle we entered had over 100 such service bulletins. The Acura escaped unscathed in the safety recall department while the BMW had two such notices.

Locating OBD-II Port 2001 Acura CL-S

It was now time to put the device through its paces. The unit itself is a chubby little guy that makes connecting to the OBD-II port either a joy if located in a wide open space or an effort requiring extreme dexterity in tight quarters. Luckily both vehicles we used to test the device didn’t require any Plastic Man-like antics. The Acura’s OBD-II port was located just behind the ashtray and required snapping out a small plastic covering to expose the connector. The BMW’s port was located just above the driver’s left knee underneath the dash. US law dictates that the port be located within 3 feet of the driver and we can confirm that both vehicles are in compliance. If you are confused as to where to look you can consult the national OBD clearinghouse:

Locating OBD-II Port 2001 Acura CL-S  Locating OBD-II Port 2001 Acura CL-S

In turn, we connected the CarMD unit to ports in both cars and waited a few seconds for the confirmation beep to chime before pulling the unit free. The Acura had no engine light on and came back with a green signal. The BMW, on the other-hand, was actually having some issues with the engine service light in full effect. We were bummed the car had problems but excited to see the CarMD unit in action. Like clockwork, the unit came back with a red signal. Connecting the device via USB to both laptops immediately uploaded the data and delivered full reports online which included My Summary, My Diagnosis, My Cure and Staying Heathy tabs on the website. My Summary shows a list of error codes generated, engine and emissions information, the number of technical service bulletins and recalls posted and a summary of the cost of parts and costs and labor to fix the problem.

[In hindsight, we actually made the process more difficult than it had to be and could have just used the device to populate the vehicles in the CarMD Portal instead of typing in the basic information manually. But the approach we took is one that would be useful for those who do not actually own the device but want general service info.]

CarMD Screen Display

The My Diagnostic section shows the actual error codes discovered along with the associated definition (layman’s term) and possible causes. It breaks everything down by engine light codes, general diagnostic codes and pending diagnostic codes (which are intermittent issues uncovered), monitor status (which helps to determine if your vehicle is ready for an emissions test) and freeze frame data (which shows vehicle operating conditions such as coolant temp). The My Cure section shows the most likely fix with a breakdown of the parts required, their costs and the estimated labor. There is also information on other possible fixes that may be required and the associated costs.

As expected, since the Acura was OK, no issues were reported but CarMD alerted us that the BMW had a problem with the fuel mixture running too lean and detected misfires. The recommended fix with the highest likelihood of success was to replace the intake manifold and mass air flow sensor. Both fixes were estimated to run around $500 each. And, in actuality, when the vehicle was taken in to the mechanic, a family friend, these two repairs were indeed recommended.

CarMD costs $98.99 and allows you to enter up to 3 vehicles and run 6 Red Light or Yellow Light reports a month. Greens don’t count against you. For an extra $1.99 you can get additional vehicle technical service bulletins. They also offer a premium version that runs $19.95 per year, provides unlimited TSBs, warranty and schedule service info for up to 3 vehicles.

CarMD Vehicle Diagnostic Tool Kit

Final Thoughts

The real selling point of CarMD is the fact that it finds a happy medium between basic OBD-II scanners that can be had for around 30 bucks (and which simply give you internal error codes) and those advanced units and associated software programs that run in the several hundreds of dollars. The device is beyond super easy to use compared with some of the other alternatives. Stick it into your car’s connector, wait a few seconds for confirmation of a successful read, pull it out and plug it into your internet connected computer (either MAC or PC) and in short order you have a full-blown report of what’s going on along with possible fixes and approximate costs as well as any recall or service bulletins. It is these comprehensive online reports, which include information from CarMD’s massive database of real-world fixes grabbed daily from actual ASE certified technicians over the last ten years, that really set it apart.

Our only real gripes were the cheap feel of the plastic, the oversized form factor and the lack of a backlit LCD. The Mac version of the software could definitely use some more love as it provided no quit function and no on-demand activation/deactivation with the insertion/removal of the device. More advanced or savvy users may also be disappointed that CarMD doesn’t offer the ability to clear out error codes. But in its defense, casual consumers– CarMD’s target market– probably do not have the interest or need to interfere with the vehicle’s diagnostic system. Other than those relatively minor issues, it is a pretty cool offering and definitely a handy device to have if you intend to keep around late model vehicles that require frequent maintenance. (It certainly gives you a nice leg up when negotiating with your local repair shop). And, best of all, this year I can actually take comfort in knowing that my holiday gifts to my father and uncle won’t be shoved in a closet until the Goodwill van comes around.