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User-friendly apps Automatic and Lemur’s BlueDriver.

It's unsettling to see the "check engine" light pop up on the dash when the car seems to be running fine. With the increased computerization of vehicles, the right smartphone accessories and apps can tap into the diagnostics to determine what's wrong.

All vehicles sold in North America since 1996 have been required to include OBD-II (On-Board Diagnostic Generation 2) ports to allow technicians to plug in devices that read the four-digit codes. Interpreting those codes hasn't always been easy, so pairing a Bluetooth-enabled OBD-II module with a detailed smartphone app can remove the guesswork.

The Lemur brand, from Newfoundland-based Root Four Imagination Inc., is one of several that have tackled this over the past few years. Lemur's BlueDriver can not only read and clear codes, but issue repair reports and assess a vehicle's chances of passing an emissions test. The information isn't devoid of mechanical jargon but the "read codes" feature is simplified enough to explain the what, where and why.

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Experienced gearheads would understand and appreciate the "live" functions that dig deeper and graph real-time data, such as engine load, fuel pressure and engine coolant temperature.

But it's the novices that will benefit most from the app, and the Repair Report (up to five included, $0.99 each thereafter) assessing what it thinks caused the problem – including possible ways to fix it. Clearing codes might seem like a stealthy way to show compliance going into an emissions test, but that disappearing light will come back on again until the underlying issue has been addressed. The difference in using a module such as BlueDriver is that the mechanic doesn't have to use a scanner to figure out the details.

Indeed, modules such as the BlueDriver, and others such as the Kiwi and Automatic brands, can't confirm if your vehicle will fail a test. Standalone apps, such as Torque Pro and DashCommand, don't really do that, either. If fuel economy is good, and the data shows a properly functioning vehicle, you might assume that passing is all but assured.

Automatic, a user-friendly app, isn't available in Canada, but has grown in popularity in the United States, in part, because it offers insightful tips on fuel economy and driving habits. However, it doesn't monitor or funnel the nuts-and-bolts data the BlueDriver does. Lemur has other separate modules to cover safety and fuel-efficiency, though it has yet to combine all of these disparate pieces into one cohesive module.

BlueDriver works in both Canada and the United States, though that may be cold comfort for some who don't like the $99.95 price tag. Some OBD-II modules from little-known manufacturers can be had for as low as $20 online, and are agnostic enough to work with any diagnostic app via Bluetooth, but performance can be hard to predict.

The upfront cost may be high on the established brands, but with no subscription fees to worry about, their usefulness may pay for themselves early on.

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