Cars have a funny way of communicating with their owners. There may be a sound, or even a smell, to indicate that something has gone wrong, but sometimes the vehicle just screams out with a warning light. In these situations, it’s best not to ignore what your car is telling you, as many of those cute little symbols that light up in your dashboard are indicative of several problems at once.
What do they all mean? How long can you drive with one of them illuminated? Car Bibles’ editors have encountered more car problems than many people will ever see in a lifetime, and are here to help shed some light on the lights. Let’s jump in to find out what the lights mean, when you might see them, and what to do about them when you do.
My Car’s Dashboard Looks Like A Christmas Tree. What Does It All Mean?
Below, we’ve listed a few of the most common warning lights you may see in your vehicle’s gauge cluster. Not all are serious, and some are only illuminated while various vehicle functions are in use.
- Oil Pressure Light
You might see the oil pressure warning light, which looks like a genie’s bottle, when there’s not enough oil pressure in the system or if the oil level is low.
- Tire Pressure Warning Light
The tire pressure warning light appears when one or more of the car’s tires are either over- or under-inflated.
- Engine Temperature Warning
If your engine is overheating, you may see the temperature warning light. Don’t ignore this one, as it can lead to severe damage to the engine itself.
- Traction Control Light
If the vehicle’s onboard computers sense that one wheel is spinning faster than the others, it will alert you that it detects a slippage via the Traction Control Light.
- Anti-lock Brake Warning Light
The vehicle’s anti-lock brake system may cause a warning light to appear if it is engaged, or if there is an issue with the braking system. Some vehicles use this light to alert the driver to low brake fluid levels as well.
- Traction Control Malfunction
If the traction control light stays on after a wheel slip event has occurred, the system could be malfunctioning and will require an inspection by a mechanic.
- Engine Warning (Check Engine Light)
The check engine light could mean anything from a loose gas cap to catastrophic failure of the engine. It’s best to get the warning light checked out when you see it, especially if it coincides with other warning signs from your vehicle. OBDII scanners are extremely useful for this.
- Battery Alert
A battery alert light means that the battery’s charge level is low, or that it’s not receiving the correct level of charge while the vehicle is running.
- Low Fuel Indicator
The low fuel indicator light tells you that the vehicle is about to run out of fuel. Some cars can travel for several miles after the fuel light comes on, but it’s best not to test the limits. Consult your owner’s manual for specifics on your own vehicle.
- Seat Belt Reminder
If one or more passengers in your vehicle are not buckled, you’ll likely be yelled at by the car via the seatbelt reminder warning light and its accompanying ding
- Fog Lamp Indicator
When your vehicle’s fog lights are on, a small green light with two lines through it may appear to indicate that there are additional lights in use.
- Washer Fluid Indicator
In many new vehicles, the washer fluid reservoir contains a sensor that can cause a light to illuminate when fluid levels get low.
- Speed Limiter
Most vehicles have electronic limiters that prevent the driver from driving over a certain speed. When the limiter is reached, a light may illuminate in the dash to indicate that action.
- Winter Mode
If your vehicle has a snow or winter mode, it may use a small snowflake or the word “SNOW” as an illuminated warning light.
How Do Warning Lights Work?
Your vehicle has an onboard computer, known as an electronic control unit, or ECU. This computer uses sensors located all over the vehicle to read and control everything from fuel flow to the automatic headlights in some vehicles. If the computer detects an issue with one or more vehicle systems, it will use a warning light or symbol located in the vehicle’s gauge cluster to alert the driver to the problem.
Car Bible’s Glossary for Car Symbols
- Gauge Cluster
The gauge cluster can also be known as the driver information center. It contains the speedometer, tachometer, odometer, and every other -ometer that your car has. It’s also where warning lights and other vital vehicle information are displayed so that the driver does not miss them.
Many parts of modern vehicles are controlled by an ECU, or electronic control unit. It’s basically a computer or series of computers that monitor the vehicle’s condition and make changes to ensure its proper operation.
OBDII refers to the vehicle’s onboard diagnostics system. In conjunction with the ECU, the OBDII system generates codes that indicate when something has gone wrong with the vehicle. An owner or technician can then “read” those codes using an OBDII device, which will tell them the part of the vehicle that needs attention.
Your Questions, Our Answers on Car Symbols
Q: I’ve Fixed The Problem In My Vehicle. How Do I Turn The Warning Light Off?
A: This will depend on the type of vehicle you own. Some allow the lights to be turned off by performing a series of actions inside the vehicle, such as turning the ignition on and off or by pressing a certain sequence of buttons. Consult your owner’s manual.
Q: Which Warning Lights Are The Most Serious?
A: Any warning light can be serious if you ignore it. Keep in mind that some lights, such as the check engine light, are more serious if they are seen in conjunction with other symptoms, such as noises or smells. It’s a good idea to investigate the warning lights to prevent a serious issue from occurring.
Q: I Think My Warning Lights Are Malfunctioning. What Can I Do?
A: The best way to discover and remedy issues with warning lights or your vehicle’s onboard diagnostics is to take it to a mechanic. The professionals can tell you if there’s an actual problem, or if there’s just a malfunction with the warning light itself. It’s best to know the truth rather than guessing about something that could evolve into a bigger problem over time.
Video on Car Symbols
Car Bible’s Favorite Car Symbol-Related Products
Understanding your car’s diagnostics and warning lights can be complicated business. That’s why Car Bibles’ editors have chosen a few products to help get you started on the right foot. Our favorites in this space include the Innova CarScan OBD2 Scanner, the BlueDriver Bluetooth Scanner, and Pro-Lift Jack Stands.
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