What 18 Symbols On Your Car’s Dashboard Mean
When something goes wrong with your car, or if a feature you should know about gets activated, a signal funnels through the electrical system and into the dashboard. This illuminates a symbol on the dash, and these cover a wide range of issues—some of which may be serious. Here are the meanings behind 18 of these curious-looking markers (and what they look like, in case you need a reminder.)
Your dashboard may be different and the symbols may have altered designs or indicate slightly different things, so be sure to consult your owner’s manual. Some of these lights could portend a serious malfunction. Don’t ignore them. When in doubt, have a professional check it out.
1. Engine Temperature Warning Light
What it looks like: A pirate ship with its sails down as if to say, “I’m just a normal boat, no pirates here.”
What it means: Your engine is too hot, friend. Here is a useful guide for what to do if your engine overheats.
2. Tire Pressure Warning Light
What it looks like: A Buckingham Palace guard telling you the field goal is good!
What it means: The pressure in one or more of your tires is too low and needs to be attended to.
3. Oil Pressure Warning
What it looks like: You’re about to get three wishes.
What it means: Your engine is running low on oil, or there is a problem with your car’s oil pressure system.
4. Traction Control
What it looks like: Cthulhu wearing a fedora.
What it means: The car’s traction control system is engaged.
5. Engine Warning
What it looks like: Yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine.
What it means: It can blink on to warn you of a number of issues, from minor (a loose gas cap) to major (wiring problems).
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6. Anti-Lock Brake Warning
What it looks like: The cover of a fitness magazine.
What it means: There is an issue with your anti-lock brake system that needs to be diagnosed and fixed.
7. Rear Window Defrost Light
What it looks like: An aerial view of snakes slithering through windows into your house.
What it means: The rear-window defroster is engaged, so any condensation should clear up in a jiffy.
8. Battery Alert
What it looks like: Math LEGO.
What it means: The car’s charging system is short of power. You are running solely off the battery.
9. Fuel Indicator Symbol
What it looks like: A snake-infested ATM.
What it means: You are running low on fuel. Also: the symbol on the fuel gauge has an arrow next to it—this indicates which side of the car has the gas cap. No more gas station three-point turns in rental cars ever again!
10. Seatbelt Reminder Light
What it looks like: Zorro if he messed up drawing his initial with his sword.
What it means: Buckle your seatbelt, please.
11. Airbag Indicator
What it looks like: A man sitting calmly in a lawn chair gazing at the sunset.
What it means: There may be an issue with one or more of your car’s airbags, or the airbag system in general.
12. Fog Lamp Indicator
What it looks like: A jellyfish leaping through a waterfall.
What it means: Your fog lights are on.
13. Air Suspension Warning
What it looks like: Your bass is so loud your car bounces up and down.
What it means: There’s a problem with the car’s air suspension system, which includes inflatable bags meant to make the rider smoother.
14. Lane Departure Warning
What it looks like: A Mayan pyramid.
What it means: You seem to be drifting out of your lane unintentionally—get your eyes on the road!
15. Washer Fluid Indicator
What it looks like: A conductor’s point of view, tapping her music stand and preparing to lead an orchestra consisting of two candy canes that are stuck together.
What it means: The washer fluid level is low. Please fill that up when you get a chance.
16. Cruise Control Indicator
What it looks like: A sundial indicating 10 a.m.
What it means: You’ve turned on cruise control. When the light is orange, it's waiting for you to set the preferred speed. When it turns green, you’ll be traveling at that speed.
17. Lamp Out Warning
What it looks like: A shiny gold medal from the Shouting! Olympics!
What it means: One of the car’s lamps—the headlight, taillight, or other exterior light—has burned out. You should probably get the bulb replaced before you get a ticket.
18. Brake Pad Warning
What it looks like: You’re staring down the drain of your kitchen sink.
What it means: The car’s brake pads are getting too thin. Time to get them inspected and replaced.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.