Your car is a complex machine designed to run properly and keep you safe. That’s why if there are potential issues on the horizon, your car dashboard icons light up to alert you about the issue. These warning signs shouldn’t be ignored, but if you’re unsure of what they mean, it’s easy to keep driving and lean into the whole ignorance is bliss mentality and hope it’s nothing. To stay safe though and keep your car in good shape, it’s worth it to learn the language of car dashboard icons and take necessary action.
1. The malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) aka the check engine light
When you’re driving, you might see your malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) illuminated — which is more commonly referred to as the check engine light. Typically the car dashboard icon looks like an engine to alert you to a potential issue with that part of the car.
According to the car resource website Edmunds, a check engine light could be something as minor as having an issue with your gas cap or something as serious as a misfiring engine.
According to Consumer Reports, your engine light may blink or remain illuminated, based on the severity of the issue and states:
“A blinking light, or in some cars a red light instead of a yellow or orange light, indicates a problem that needs immediate attention. Either way, you should have the vehicle checked by a mechanic. In late-model cars, a blinking light usually indicates an engine misfire so severe that unburned fuel is being dumped into the exhaust system, where it can quickly damage the catalytic converter, leading to an expensive repair.”
If it’s static and not blinking, the good news is it’s not an emergency. However, in either situation, you want to get it checked out ASAP.
2. Engine temperature car dashboard icon
Your car also has an engine temperature car dashboard icon that typically looks like a thermometer. This is your engine temperature warning light which alerts you when the engine is too hot.
According to John’s Auto Care Center, “If this light turns on, it means that your vehicle has detected that the coolant temperature is too high. This indicates that your engine is likely overheating. If your engine is overheating, it is recommended to pull your vehicle over to a safe place and turn off the engine for at least 20 minutes.”
In this case, you could be experiencing a coolant leak or some other issue with your overall cooling system leading to an engine radiating heat. This could damage your engine in the long run, so it’s best to go to a mechanic to check out what’s really going on.
3. The oil can car dashboard icon
Another car dashboard icon you might see is the oil can, which is the oil pressure warning light. When this comes on, your car is telling you it’s time for an oil change.
You need an oil change typically every 5,000 to 7,500 miles though this can vary by vehicle, so it’s best to check your owner’s manual. But if you see this light, it’s an urgent warning that your oil pressure is below optimal levels, so get an oil change and also check to see if there is a leak. No need to panic right away though, as you typically have a cushion of 500 miles before it turns into a serious issue.
4. Battery signal
Your car battery plays an important role in your vehicle, and keeps the charge going for all the electricity in your car. If you see the battery signal on your car dashboard light up, it could mean that the battery charge isn’t working as it should and may be close to dying.
In that case, you’ll want to check both your car battery as well as the alternator. You typically need to change your car battery every three to five years, so if it’s been a while, it might be time to replace your car battery.
5. Brake warning signal
If you see an exclamation point car light that has a circular border and seems to be hugged by a pair of parentheses, that’s your brake warning signal. This car dashboard icon typically comes on for two reasons:
- Your parking brake is activated.
- There is a bigger issue with your braking system such as having low levels of braking fluid.
If the light is still on after deactivating your parking brake, it’s something you should address right away.
6. Tire pressure light
If you see an exclamation point that looks like it’s inside a deflated tire, that’s your tire pressure warning light. When that comes on, your tire pressure is running low and your tires are likely underinflated and need more air.
This can lead to uneven tire wear or even a tire blowout. Checking your tire pressure should be a regular part of your car maintenance and checked once per month.
7. Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS)
Something that is similar to the tire pressure light that may be in some vehicles is the Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS). If you see TPMS or your exclamation point car warning signal isn’t going away after fixing your tire pressure, it could mean that the sensor for detecting low tire pressure isn’t working properly.
8. Lamp out indicator light
If you see a car dashboard icon that looks like the sun or an exclamation point inside of the sun, that’s your lamp out indicator light. This lets you know that one of your exterior lights might be out. That could mean your headlights are out and need to be fixed. In that case, nighttime driving should be avoided. If you see this warning signal, check on your lights and get them fixed.
The bottom line
Learning how to read car dashboard icons can feel like learning a new language. It can be difficult and frustrating at first, but once you know what all the exclamation points in your car means as well as the other warning lights, you’ll be better informed about what’s actually going on with your car.
If you see a warning light in your car, don’t ignore it for too long and take action to stay safe. As part of your car maintenance and safety, make sure you have the appropriate amount of car insurance coverage as well. You can check out various coverage options with Metromile. Don’t drive very often? It’s time to rethink your auto coverage and pay based on the miles you drive. Get a free quote with Metromile to see how much you could save.
Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer, podcast host of the Mental Health and Wealth show, and author of Dear Debt. She’s a cat mom to two jazzy cats, Miles and Thelonious, an amateur boxer, music lover, and needs coffee to function.