Although most more recent vehicles don’t have distributors, many built from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s still have them. If your vehicle doesn’t have one, you can disregard this section and bop on down to the sections “Warning Lights and Malfunction Indicator Lights (MIL)” and “Other Electrical Gadgets.
In an ignition system with a distributor, the distributor works in much the same way as the old-fashioned mechanical distributor that preceded it, but without all the moving parts that constantly needed adjusting. It still gets voltage from a coil and distributes it to each spark plug in turn.
The good news is that electronic distributors are relatively trouble-free. The bad news is that if they break down, you have to pay a professional to replace them. They include the following parts, which can be seen .
The only trouble is that MILs can be so enigmatic about what’s gone wrong — especially when the ominous words “Check Engine” appear — that they can be very unsettling. That warning can apply to the engine, emissions, or accessories, so at first you can’t know if it’s just that your gas cap is loose or if major surgery is required.
When I turn on Esmerelda’s engine, a whole panel of little yellow symbols lights up. Many of these MIL are undecipherable. Others are initials that stand for . . . what? My owner’s manual describes most of them, but because these lights only stay on for seconds, it’s hard to keep track of them.
And if one of them stays lit (bad news!), basically all the owner’s manual advises is to head for the dealership. Because that means I have to pay someone to put the car on a scan tool and “read the codes,” as a confirmed do-it-myselfer, I’m not happy.
There is one bright spot on the horizon: In some areas, there are now do-it-yourself service centers where you can drive into one of their bays, follow instructions for finding the place under your dashboard to plug in their diagnostic equipment, get a printout of the “codes,” and look up what’s wrong. There’s a good chance that you’ll need professional help, but if you just left your gas cap loose, you can save yourself a lot of time and mone.
Other Electrical Gadgets
In addition to what I cover in the alternator section earlier in this chapter, by keeping the battery charged, the alternator also indirectly supplies the electrical current for the sound system, headlights, taillights, directional signals, defroster/heater/air conditioner blower, and other electrical gadgets.Although most of these components require professional repair, the following parts are pretty easy to deal with yourself.
Headlight development continues. Innovations that already exist and will become more widely available include adaptive front lighting systems (AFS) that can swivel to illuminate a corner and lightweight LED headlamps that have the potential to outlive your vehicle.
Unlike older vehicles, which needed ignition tune-ups at least once a year, most vehicles on the road today have electronic ignition systems that are built to go for years without the need for them.
The term “tune-up” is still used to refer to routine maintenance, which varies with a vehicle’s make, model, and year, so check your owner’s manual for scheduling recommendations.