Can A Smartphone App Diagnose Your Ailing Car?

With Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of NPR’s “Car Talk,” hanging up their coveralls and retiring from the radio this fall, there will be a serious void in car diagnostics for ordinary people. We will no longer be able to imitate (very poorly) the sounds that our cars make and get help over the air. So where can we turn now, short of visiting an actual mechanic? Our colleagues a few parking spaces away at Consumer Reports Cars discovered and tested a free Android and iOS app called Car Trouble that supposedly helps diagnose, well, car trouble. Is it of any use? Yes and no.

It’s not that the app isn’t nice-looking and easy to navigate. It is, apart from a white-on-gray background that can be difficult to read. The main problem, they note, is that the app is targeted at laypeople, but assumes that the user has skills that most non-gearheads don’t. It also stops short at times, not explaining what the user should actually do once a diagnosis has been reached, or info on whether or not your car is safe to drive.

Car Trouble app helps identify mystery noises and other problems [Consumer Reports Cars]
Car Trouble [iTunes App Store]
Car Trouble [Google Play]


Edit Your Comment

  1. dush says:

    RIP Car Talk.

    • scoosdad says:

      Yup, doing Saturday morning errands driving around in the car just aren’t going to be the same knowing I’m listening to rehashed and re-edited episodes of Car Talk.

      • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

        It’s been going on for the past several years but in the past year, it’s like they’re not even trying any more. Even with the rehashed episodes, it’s the only radio program that I routinely listen too.

        If it’s all repeats anyways, I really wish they’d bring back the older episodes which are more focused on DIY repairs, than the relationship stuff.

    • nishioka says:

      “Don’t drive like my brother.”
      “And don’t drive like MY brother.”

  2. Blueskylaw says:

    My smartphone app told me my car was low on blinker
    fluid and my muffler bearings needed to be replaced.

    • Scoobatz says:

      This may sound like a silly question, but can headlight fluid be used to refill blinker fluid?

      • TheMansfieldMauler says:

        Only on a 76-78 AMC Pacer and the Grumman LLV (those boxy Post Office delivery vehicles).

    • humphrmi says:

      Awww, come on guys, it’s so simple maybe you need a refresher course. It’s all muffler bearings nowadays. Now you prepare that Fetzer valve with some 3-in-1 oil and some gauze pads, and I’m gonna need ’bout ten quarts of anti-freeze, preferably Prestone. No, no make that Quaker State.

    • Princess Beech loves a warm cup of treason every morning says:

      App told me it’s not safe to drive without the raccoon attachment on my radiator pipe. Where can I find a replacement raccoon for my Camry?

    • Torgonius wants an edit button says:

      But at what mileage do you REALLY need to change the rear-axle oilpan?

    • crispyduck13 says:

      Once those muffler bearings go you should look at flushing your tailpipe coolant.

    • operator207 says:

      Muffler bearings do exist. Look up an old Mitsubishi 3000gt. The assembly that includes the muffler has a bypass, with bearings. The Mazda 929 and Millennia had them too. I remember one car I worked on, had bearings on the muffler hangers. I can’t remember the car make/model though. They looked a lot like roller skate bearings in size.
      I used to work for an auto parts store in the 90’s. I would get calls asking for muffler bearings, with snickering in the background, when i asked what year of 3000gt, 929 or Millennia they had, and what they were doing to wear those out so quickly (those cars were only a couple years old when I worked there), they would stutter, mumble some crap about it being a joke, and hang up. The guys that thought muffler bearings were funny, were the ones we would laugh about.

  3. Nobby says:

    Great! One more excuse for idiots to be looking at their phone while “driving”.

  4. jvanbrecht says:

    For about $50 (give or take a few dollars), you can get a wireless or wired obd2 dongle, that interfaces with both iphones and android devices that provide a wealth of information for the user.

    Obviously, most of it is codes that go above most normal, and gearhead users heads, but searching the internet provides the answers.

    Sometime I am sure there will be an app similar to the one in this story that could use that same data and be more usefull, but it is a start.

  5. mikeMD says:

    If you have a dreaded check engine light and a compatible car (1996 or newer) consider an inexpensive OBD-II scanner (the port someplace under the dash on the drivers side typically). They can be had for $20-40 if you look around and will read the engine error codes (usually you have to look up the codes, the fancy models with large screens display the problem in normal language). There are versions that plug into smartphones but the price was stupidly high. It will pay for itself the first time you use it ad can clear out codes (turn off the light) for one time problems like an engine misfire or something.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Or go to most auto parts stores and have them read the code for you for free.

      Though for $20 it’s worth it just to have it right at your fingertips.

    • jvanbrecht says:

      I would not call $100 total for dongle and app stupidly high.. compared to say a few thousand for a mechanic quality piece of software and dongle (not including the price of the laptop)

      Also, many cars do share generic codes for certain problems, then there are manufacturer specific errors that you will have to google or call the dealer service center to figure out what they are.. Infiniti and MB are like that for sure (I just traded my second Inifniti and still have my 09 MB).

      • mikeMD says:

        Totally agree – just meant it was not worth it IMHO to get a dongle/app when a dedicated device was availably for much less.

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      I was able to pick up a Bluetooth OBDII reader for $30 that works with my phone. The device coupled with Torque is great.

      • samandiriel says:

        I just bought one and am going to get Torq too! I’m looking forward to giving it a whirl… I hate that stupid “Check engine” light.

    • Sudonum says:

      Search the web and see if your car has an internal code reader. I had a C5 Corvette and I could get the codes to appear in the driver information screen when I mashed the buttons in a certain combo, and the code definitions were available on the same site as the instructions.

  6. homehome says:

    I used to love car talk when I was in charlotte, came on saturday/sunday morning and learned about half of my car knowledge from them.

  7. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    Oh man, I love that show!!

  8. 2 Replies says:

    Scripted app, unlikely.
    App with OBDI accessory cable, most definitely.

  9. Important Business Man (Formerly Will Print T-shirts For Food) says:

    “I’m currently driving 136 mph on the highway and I can’t go faster. What is wrong with my car, dear app?”

  10. neilb says:

    I use a $25 OBDII reader I got from ebay and the Torque free app on my Android phone.
    Torque gives you the code you need to look up online. It will also reset your check engine light.
    Really, it is that easy. This little OBDII dongle reads almost every protocol (be sure to check the details if you drive a diesel/CAN interface).
    If you already have a smartphone, then getting an excellent scantool is only $25. Everyone should have one (for 1996 or newer vehicles, that is).
    Where to check online once you have your code: is great, as are vehicle-specific forums, and (of course) the CarTalk forums.

  11. polishhillbilly says:

    The reviews on Itunes are stellar! /sarcasm

  12. Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

    I think people are better off posting their problems to general car sites (Car Talk or BITOG) or specific sites for their make/model.

  13. Mr_D says:

    One other thing to try is to reset the computer and clear the check engine light – 9 times out of 10, it’s the gas cap not on right, so tighten that, then reset the computer. If it stays away, it’s the gas cap. If it comes back, it’s something real.

    Also, if you have a fancy computer display in your car, there might be some way to get into a debug menu and look at the code that way.

    • Frogskins says:

      You don’t need fancy. Had an old Jeep Cherokee which would flash the code using the check engine light. My current Honda Pilot does the same thing. Just have to look up online how to get the car in to diagnostic mode. With my old Jeep is was turning the key on and off 3 times and then leaving it on on the fourth.

      It does NOT, however, clear the code like a dedicated scanner can

  14. AllanG54 says:

    I’ve listened to that show a few times. They spend more time bullshitting with each other than they do taking calls. I know it’s a popular broadcast but I think it’s a waste of time. Click and Clack my ass.

    • Laura Northrup says:

      The bullshit is the real point of the show. Any actual information about cars is tangential.

  15. Phil James says:

    i use an OBD2 dongle and use an android app, and it works flawlessly! it took some time getting used to the program but once everything is set up correctly it works great!

  16. joe h says:

    These are facts I have learned during the last 15 years of driving.

    The check engine light is usually related to the emission system. The basic obd2 readers are useless for diagnosing other engine and transmission issues. If you own a car that is produce a strange noise, or doesn’t seem right, and it is under warranty, what you are experiencing is normal for that model. Outside the warranty, it will run you $1200. Just enough so it hurts the wallet, but not high enough to junk the car.

  17. raytube says:

    You can always check and reset your diag code for free. Go by a auto parts place (Oreilly whoever) and ask to use theirs.

  18. Cacao says:

    I don’t have a smart phone. If I did, I’d want an app that makes Click and Clack’s “boh-oh-oh-oh-oh-gus” sound. I’d press it whenever someone is trying to BS me.

  19. fencepost says:

    You will NEVER get an app like this that tells you whether it’s safe to drive the car, at least not if the developers are competent or have received any kind of legal advice.

    If it turns out that the “squeak crunch grind grind grind” chosen was in fact the steering assembly preparing to fall off instead of something innocuous, there’s no disclaimer in the world good enough to keep people from suing the vendor if they said “sure, your car is safe to drive” right before the fiery crash.