The check engine light on your car’s dashboard will usually light up when there is a problem with the engine. It’s normal for it to flash on engine start-up, but what does it mean if your car dies and there is no check engine light?
The most common reasons for your car to die while driving, with no check engine light are a faulty idle air control valve, a blocked fuel filter, an alternator that is not generating power or a battery that no longer holds a charge.
Your car may also cut out if there is a bad vacuum leak or an intermittent electrical problem. Most engine problems will be picked up by the ECU through one of the engine sensors.
If one of the engine sensors triggers an engine error code then this will usually cause a check engine light. If the light doesn’t come on, then the problem is usually less serious or intermittent.
Why Does My Car Die While Driving With No Check Engine Light? (7 Common Causes)
Unfortunately, there are lots of reasons why your car can die, and if there is no check engine light then finding the reason why can sometimes be difficult to figure out. Modern cars have dozens of sensors fitted that constantly monitor the entire vehicle and can notify you if a problem arises.
Obviously the first thing to check is the fuel tank. Make sure that you didn’t just run out of fuel as this is probably one of the most common reasons why an engine will die while driving.
Otherwise, if the problem hasn’t been picked up by the ECU, then this is where you need to get your hands dirty and explore the problem a bit further. Here are a few of the main reasons why your car might die while it’s running with no flashing check engine light.
Reason 1: A Bad Idle Air Control Valve
A very common reason for a car to cut out and die is a faulty idle air control valve.
The idle air control valve is a small valve on the engine’s intake system that allows air to bypass the throttle body and mass air flow sensor and go directly into the engine. It does this when the engine is decelerating and when the car is stopped and idling.
This valve is controlled by the car’s ECU and it makes adjustments to the air/fuel ratio depending on various inputs such as outside air temperature, intake air temperature, load and various other things.
When the car is idling, the throttle body is completely closed, and the air getting into the engine is bypassed through the idle air control valve. As you accelerate, the throttle body opens and the idle air control valve shuts off.
The idle air control valve can become blocked as it ages and this can affect it’s operation. If it can only open partially or not at all, then the air flow into the engine will be restricted and this can cause the car to die.
Reason 2: A Partially Blocked fuel filter
Another cause of engine performance problems that can cause a car to die is a blocked, or partially blocked fuel filter.
A fuel filter is fitted to all ICE vehicles to ensure dirt particles don’t get beyond the fuel tank and into the fuel pump and injectors. Most fuel filters need to be changed every few years or at a set mileage to ensure they don’t become completely blocked.
As a fuel filter ages, it can start to become blocked and the inner filter material can become less porous. This can restrict the flow of fuel to the engine, especially when accelerating. A partially blocked fuel filter might only cause problems when the engine is under a heavy load such as when going up hill or accelerating hard.
Some common symptoms of a blocked fuel filter include lack of engine power or an engine that dies when accelerating, engine misfires due to lack of fuel reaching the injectors, an engine that is sometimes difficult to start and finally blocked fuel injectors or a damaged fuel pump.
Reason 3: A Faulty ignition coil
A intermittent problem with one or more of the ignition coils in your car will cause it to die when you are driving, and it may not always trigger a check engine light.
The ignition coils fitted to each cylinder of an engine are there to provide high voltage power to the spark plugs during the combustion cycle. They are effectively small transformers that work by converting the 12 volt power from the car battery into a high voltage power supply that is needed to ignite the air fuel mixture in each cylinder.
If there is a problem with the ignition coil or it’s wiring then this can affect the amount of power it can create, and the timing of the supply of this power.
Some common symptoms of a bad ignition coil include engine misfires, a lack of engine power, poor fuel economy, an engine that runs rough especially when idling and an engine that is difficult to start from cold.
Ignition coils can fail if the insulation of the internal wiring starts to degrade due to wear and tear or constant overheating. Ignition coils can also have intermittent problems if the wiring feeding the ignition coil becomes damaged.
Reason 4: A Failing fuel pump That hasn’t died completely
Another common reason for an engine that dies is because of a fuel pump that isn’t working as efficiently as it should. If the fuel pump hasn’t completely died then it may not trigger the check engine light.
Most modern engines have one or more electronic fuel pumps fitted , sometimes one is in the fuel tank and another fitted to closer to the injectors. Fuel pumps operate under high pressure and are actually lubricated by the fuel that they are pumping.
Over time, fuel pump seals and electronic components can fail. This is usually down to simple wear and tear, but can sometimes be cause by blockages elsewhere in the fuel system that can cause the fuel pump to ‘run dry’.
If a fuel pump is failing there are a few common symptoms you may notice. These include an engine that is difficult to start, lack of power when accelerating, and engine that sputters or jerks when driving and sometimes dies.
Reason 5: Alternator not charging the battery properly
A failing alternator can also cause a car to die while driving if it is not charging the battery consistently or generating enough power to keep the vehicle electrics running.
Modern cars need a lot of power when they are running and the alternator provides most of the electrical power needed by your vehicle when you are driving. It also recharges the vehicle battery so that there will be sufficient power available to start the engine again.
An alternator typically provides between 13 and 14.8 volts of power. If it is failing, the amount of power it produces may be significantly reduced and this may lead to the engine dying when it is running. It’s also important that the amount of charge in the battery is topped up when the car is running, otherwise the battery will lose most of its residual charge, causing the engine to behave erratically and possibly cut out.
Symptoms of a faulty alternator include the vehicle not starting, headlights dimming, a charging system warning light on the dashboard and the engine dying.
Reason 6: An Engine Vacuum leak
An engine vacuum leak is another common and often undetected cause of an engine dying and usually doesn’t cause the check engine light to come on.
A vacuum leak occurs when extra air is sucked into the engine via a damaged seal or vacuum hose, resulting in too much air in the engine that in turn causes the engine to run lean. This can cause the engine to cut out as there is not enough fuel in the fuel mixture to provide sufficient power output.
Symptoms of an engine vacuum leak can include lack of engine power, especially when accelerating. You may also hear suction or whirling noises when accelerating, this is air being sucked into a the split in a damaged vacuum hose.
A bad PCV valve can also cause a vacuum leak. If the valve gets stuck open or a hose cracks or becomes disconnected then this will allow air to leak into the engine causing a vacuum leak.
Vacuum leaks can also be caused by leaks in the intake manifold because of cracks or damaged seals. This won’t cause a check engine light, but will lead to a decrease in engine performance and lack of power.
Reason 7: An Electrical problem
Any problem with the engine electrics can also cause a car to die while driving. Modern engines have miles of cables and dozens of sensors that help to control the engine and keep it running efficiently.
This is all controlled by the engine ECU and the software that it runs. If there is a problem with any part of the system it’s usually picked up by the ECU and a check engine light is triggered, but sometimes an intermittent fault can go undetected.
Common electrical problems can include loose or damaged wiring, problems with earthing cables (due to corrosion and rust), battery cell failure, faulty relays such as faulty ignition relays.
These types of problems can be a nightmare to trace, especially if they are intermittent and are not triggering engine error codes.
If your car engine is showing signs of electrical problems such as the engine dying sometimes when you are driving, then it is a good idea to get it checked out by an automotive electrical expert.
What Next: How To Fix A Car That dies while driving But with no check engine light?
If the problem isn’t simply an empty fuel tank, then the next thing to do is to run an engine diagnostic, using an OBD-II scanner. It’s not uncommon for the ECU to log engine error codes when there is an intermittent fault and depending on the vehicle, it may not trigger a check engine light.
If there is an engine code present then this may give you a good idea where to start your investigation.
Take appropriate precautions when carrying out any inspections when the engine is running. If you are unsure or unqualified then hire a good mechanic to do it for you.
- The next thing to do is to check the service history of the vehicle to see when the air and fuel filters were last changed and spark plugs replaced. A blocked air filter or fuel filter will cause engine performance problems that may lead to an engine dying. Old and dirty spark plugs will also adversely affect an engine that can lead to intermittent problems.
- Test the alternator and car battery to ensure they are operating normally. An alternator should be generating at least 13.5 volts when the engine is running and this can increase to 14.5 volts. A fully charged battery will give a reading of 12.6 Volts. If you don’t have the specialised tools to check the alternator and battery then let an expert check them for you.
- Check for engine vacuum leaks by checking the intake manifold for cracks or damage. Check the seals around the throttle body and idle air control valve. You can also check for air leaks on vacuum hoses by spraying a small amount of water onto the hose and seeing if it disappears into a crack.
- Check for damage to visible electrical cables and connections. This can be difficult to do on modern vehicles that have lots of plastic covers protecting engine components.
FAQ: Car dies while driving But with no check engine light
1. Can a car throw codes without check engine light?
Yes it is possible for the ECU to record engine error codes with actually triggering the check engine light. Some engine error codes can be related to engine performance but are not urgent enough that the driver needs to be informed. The may only be useful to a mechanic that is tuning an engine.
In some cases engine issues may be intermittent and the check engine light won’t stay on permanently as the error code is wiped from the ECU memory when the engine restarts or completes a new driving cycle.
2. What causes a car to die while idling in your driveway?
The most common reasons for a car to die while idling and not accelerating or under significant load include a bad idle air control valve, a vacuum leak, blocked air filter, lack of fuel, a failing fuel pump and bad spark plugs.
3. Can a catalytic converter make your car stall?
Yes, a damaged or blocked catalytic convertor can affect an engine to the point that it cuts out. If a catalytic convertor is blocked, this will inhibit the release of exhaust gases from the engine. It usually gets worse after the engine is running for a few minutes and when driving.