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When your check engine light comes on, it’s natural to expect the worst. Vehicle issues often require hundreds of dollars in repairs — with much of your money paying for the convenience of a mechanic. However, when you have one of the best car code readers in your pocket, you don’t have to prepare for the end of the world.
This article will help rideshare drivers like you keep hard-earned money in their pockets by explaining what a car code reader is, as well as which models are the best for a tight budget.
- What Is a Car Code Reader?
- Why Do I Need a Car Code Reader?
- Four Best OBD2 Scanners Under $50
- Frequently Asked Questions
What Is a Car Code Reader?
Car code readers — most commonly known as OBD2 or OBDII scanners — are unique tools that help drivers diagnose their car issues. Once your scan tool is attached to your vehicle’s OBD (on-board diagnostics) port, it can pull a five-character trouble code that can be translated into where the vehicle issue is located, whether it’s a manufacturer-specific or universal issue, and more. Take these common trouble codes, for example:
- Codes B1555 to B1558 indicate issues with the ignition start circuit
- Codes P0300 to P0312 indicate engine misfires caused by multiple cylinders or a specific cylinder
- Codes U1098 and U1099 indicate invalid or missing data for your vehicle speed control
OBD2 scanners cannot tell you exactly how to fix your vehicle, but by providing trouble codes, they help you narrow in on a single corrupted area, allowing you to save time and money by fixing it yourself or diagnosing your issue ahead of your trip to the mechanic.
As we’ve noted in a previous article, only vehicle models manufactured in 1996 or later have OBDII ports that can connect to OBD2 scanners. For older vehicle models, you’ll likely have to shop for an OBD-I scanner, which are not universal to all car makes.
Why Do I Need a Car Code Reader?
When driving for a rideshare app is one of your primary sources of income, you’ll be putting plenty of miles on your car. The more you use your vehicle, the faster the wear can affect your engine and other parts of your vehicle. Having your OBDII car code reader in hand keeps you prepared for the inevitable check engine light, even if it turns on while you’re on the road.
In addition, OBD2 scanners can save you a significant amount of money. By helping you diagnose the issue, you can take a trip to your local auto shop and repair it yourself. This will save you a costly trip to the mechanic, which is especially helpful if a foreign object lodged in the trouble area is the only issue. If you’re not as adept at vehicle maintenance, knowing your fault code will at least prevent your mechanic from charging you for unnecessary repairs in other parts of your car.
Four Best Car Code Readers for Under $50
When your goal is to save money, you need to seek the best possible deal for your investments. Your OBD2 scanner doesn’t have to be expensive to provide quality data for personal use. Here are some of our favorite scan tools for when you’re on a budget:
1. Foxwell NT201 Auto OBD2 Scanner
Whether you’re driving a Toyota or a BMW, the Foxwell OBD2 scan tool is a great budget choice for diagnosing your car problems. Through free lifetime upgrades, this scanner allows you to stay up-to-date on new car diagnostics features and any changes to error codes.
The scanner’s LCD screen allows drivers to easily navigate through its features. One feature the tool offers is I/M readiness testing, which ensures you’re ready for your smog test and clues you in on vehicle features you need to better maintain. In addition, you’ll get real-time data about your long-term and short-term fuel trim, engine RPM, and more.
Get the Foxwell NT201 Auto OBD2l Scanner for $44.98 on Amazon.
2. Vgate WiFi iCar2 OBDII Elm327 Code Reader
This compact OBD scanner eliminates the need to carry around a bulky scanner by allowing you to navigate its features straight through an OBDII app, using Bluetooth or WiFi — your choice. Essentially, it can automatically turn your phone into a touch screen OBD2 tool.
For this device, we recommend using the Car Scanner ELM OBD2, which is compatible with iOS, Android, and Windows devices. By pairing Vgate’s scan tool with this unique code reader app, you’ll receive far more than your basic fault code information. You’ll also get real-time data about your vehicle speed, coolant temperature, and much more. Plus, if you own a common car make supported by the scanner, like Ford or Honda, you’ll receive extra features at no cost.
Get the Vgate WiFi iCar2 OBDII Elm327 Code Reader for only $19.99 on Amazon.
3. Autel AutoLink AL319 OBD2 Scanner
Autel is a popular car diagnostic tool manufacturer that many professionals trust. While the company does offer plenty of high-end options, this model is more than enough. With a bright color screen and a great user experience, this scanner allows you to diagnose your issue, view freeze frame data that shows when the error started, and receive a live data stream.
Another unique feature that this OBD2 scanner provides is accurate emissions testing. This means you can know whether you’re ready to head to your local emissions testing station before you waste any time there.
Get the Autel AutoLink AL319 OBD2 Scanner for only $34.88 on Amazon, available with a one-year warranty.
4. AUTOPHIX 3210 Bluetooth OBD2 Enhanced Car Diagnostic Scanner
Created to be paired with the company’s very own OBD Mate app, this Bluetooth scanner is compatible with iPhones, iPads, and Androids. Much like the BlueDriver Bluetooth Pro OBDII Scan Tool, a leading and far more expensive model, this AUTOPHIX device includes a large database of certified fixes for each trouble code. This makes it incredibly easy for you to avoid a trip to the mechanic.
One of our favorite features of this car code reader is the availability of battery health and voltage testing, straight from the comfort of your vehicle. This is unique because battery testing frequently requires drivers to purchase a separate tool. Plus, with the AUTOPHIX scanner, you’ll still get the benefits of freeze frame data, oxygen sensor tests, and more — plus free diagnostic reports.
Get the AUTOPHIX 3210 Bluetooth OBD2 Enhanced Car Diagnostic Scanner for $42.99 on Amazon.
Frequently Asked Questions
When you’re working as an independent contractor — as all Uber and Lyft drivers do — taking time off work can decrease your weekly earnings without compensation. An OBD2 scanner is the perfect tool to help you fix your vehicle in a pinch. Here are a few frequently asked questions to help you decide which one to buy:
1. Are OBD2 scanners required by any rideshare company?
No, rideshare drivers are not required to have OBD2 scanners and are not reimbursed for their scan tool purchases. The scanner is more of a proactive purchase to help you maintain your vehicle.
2. Can I deduct my OBD2 scan tool purchase from my taxes?
When tax season comes around, make sure you have your OBD2 scanner purchase logged in your list of tax deductible receipts. This tool is considered a deductible business expense for the vast majority rideshare drivers. We recommend consulting your accountant when you file your taxes to ensure your purchase qualifies.
3. I can’t afford a scan tool right now. What can I do when my check engine light comes on?
While we highly recommend rideshare drivers have scan tools for emergencies, we do understand a tight budget. When your check engine light turns on, you can head to one of your local auto parts store and borrow a car code reader there. National stores like O’Reilly Auto Parts and NAPA Auto Parts typically have at least one on hand, although it wouldn’t hurt to call ahead to ensure that you’re not wasting time driving around town without earning a buck.
Start Earning More Than You Spend
As you browse through our suggested OBD2 scan tools, consider what features would be the most useful for you. When you’re on a budget, prioritizing is key, and you know your vehicle and your driving habits better than anyone else. Once you have your perfect scanner in hand, your investment will pay off throughout your vehicle’s lifetime.
Looking for more tools to help you save as a rideshare driver? We put together a guide to the best mileage tracking apps, so you can get the biggest tax deduction possible at the end of the year.
Brett Helling is the owner of Ridester.com. He has been a rideshare driver since early 2012, having completed hundreds of trips for companies including Uber, Lyft, and Postmates. In 2014 he acquired Ridester.com to share his experiences with other drivers. His insights are regularly quoted by publications such as Forbes, Vice, CNBC, and more. He is currently working on a book about working in the Gig Economy, expanding his skill set beyond the rideshare niche. Read more about Brett here.