Cars

WTF Do All These Dashboard Signals Actually Mean?

Published On 10/28/2015 Published On 10/28/2015
iStock/Askold Romanov

A couple of years ago, a British poll revealed that 98% of the driving population is confused about what the symbols on their dashboard represent. And it’s not hard to see why. You’ve got the basic “idiot lights” -- which essentially mean you’re an idiot for not taking care of your car properly, or for failing to notice that it's, like, on fire. But some of the other symbols on your instrument panel are every bit as confusing as the modern tech that goes into your car, while others haven't been updated in decades.

Here's a refresher course.

Aaron Miller/Thrillist

1. Check engine

What it looks like: You're screwed.
What it means: There's a sensor somewhere that's reading something out of range. It's probably nothing, but worth having someone that knows what they're doing take a look.
 

2. Low fuel warning

What it looks like: An anthropomorphic 1950s-era gas pump, scratching its head in confusion, often with an arrow.
What it means: You should fill up sometime in the near future, within the next 50 miles or so. Or, if you're a rocket scientist, just stop in the middle of the road, immediately. Either way, the arrow points to the side of the car with the gas cap.
 

3. Water temperature warning

What it looks like: An upper case E, hung at half mast on a flag pole in the middle of the ocean.
What it means: Your car's coolant is getting pretty hot. Get yourself to the side of the road -- or better yet, to a parking lot -- as quickly as possible, or you risk overheating your engine.
 

4. Low oil pressure warning

What it looks like: Your afternoon tea is ready.
What it means: Your oil pressure is too low. The biggest takeaway is to get off the road, because there's not enough oil lubricating your pistons, and your engine doesn't like chafing any more than you do.
 

5. Battery charge warning

What it looks like: LEGO blocks for math teachers.
What it means: There's not enough juice getting to your battery. The cause can be anything from a dying alternator to simply having too many electrical gizmos running at once. Turn off as many electrical things as you can, like your lights if it's not dark, your radio, unplug your phone, etc. Do NOT turn your car off until you get somewhere safe, in case it doesn't start again.
 

6. Parking brake indicator

What it looks like: Your phone's not compatible with the latest Apple emoji updates.
What it means: If this light is on, the good news is you're one of the few who actually uses your parking brake. The bad news is your parking brake is still set.

Aaron Miller/Thrillist

7. Antilock brake system warning

What it looks like: Your car is telling you to do more sit ups.
What it means: There's a sensor that's not reading right in your antilock braking system, so you can't rely on it to save your tail if you simply mash the brake pedal in an emergency.
 

8. Low windshield washer fluid indicator

What it looks like: A whale, coming up for air, clearing out its blow hole.
What it means: You're low on windshield washer fluid. If you value clear vision, take the 45 seconds required to top it off.
 

9. High beam indicator

What it looks like: An uppercase D moving to the right with impressive haste.
What it means: Your brights are on. Unless you're in the middle of nowhere, with no cars in front of you, you're using the wrong lights.
 

10. Low tire pressure warning

What it looks like: A misshapen horseshoe with an exclamation point in the middle.
What it means: According to your tire pressure monitor system, at least one of your tires is low. The system isn't infallible, but it's not usually wrong, so check your pressures -- whatever you do, don't rely on them looking low -- and add air as necessary.
 

11. Fog lights indicator

What it looks like: Just like your brights indicator, only green with a fun squiggly line.
What it means: Your fog lights are on. If it's foggy out, that's fine, but if it isn't, you look like a dumb high school kid.
 

12. Power steering warning

What it looks like: A very, very excited steering wheel.
What it means: There's a problem with you're power steering system. Your car will still steer, but be prepared for having little to know power assist: at slower speeds you might need to crank the wheel with quite a bit of force to turn.

Aaron Miller/Thrillist

13. Traction control indicator

What it looks like: A car fish-tailing wildly.
What it means: Your traction control system is saving your life. Or interfering with your fun, depending on whether you meant to do what the drawing suggests.
 

14. Adaptive cruise control indicator

What it looks like: A reminder that the college basketball season matters more for some conferences.
What it means: You've turned your cruise control on. If you're not out on the highway, wind in your hair, maintaining a steady speed, you should turn it off.
 

15. Freezing temperatures warning

What it looks like: A perfect little unique snowflake.
What it means: Baby, it's cold outside. Specifically, it's below 37 degrees Fahrenheit, so it's technically possible for black ice to form on bridges and overpasses.
 

16. Wait to start indicator

What it looks like: A silly straw, or the eyes of a wise old owl.
What it means: You have a diesel engine, and the glow plugs -- really hot plugs designed to help the diesel combust while the engine is cold -- aren't hot enough yet. Give it a few seconds.
 

17. Lane departure warning indicator

What it looks like: A road, sometimes in different colors, and sometimes with a drawing of a car on it.
What it means: You're not doing a very good job of staying in your lane.
 

18. Diesel particulate filter warning

What it looks like: Your car wants an ice cream cone. Urgently.
What it means: It takes a lot of work to get a diesel to run cleanly enough to pass emissions standards, and this filter helps remove extra soot from the exhaust, so your car doesn't emit giant black clouds.

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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter. He finds the need for the snowflake hilarious.

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