What All the Symbols on Your Car’s Dashboard Mean

September 15th, 2021 by

Your car’s dashboard is a fountain of information. Some of it is crystal-clear while others can be as confusing as Egyptian hieroglyphs. Turn the key or push the button to start and you’ll see a dizzying array of symbols, each with its own unique importance. This initial display is part of a self-test function to ensure all the gauges and symbols are displaying correctly. If you see any of these symbols under normal driving conditions, however…

Think of this guide as a Rosetta Stone that tells you exactly what those symbols mean and what to do whenever you see them.

1. Oil Pressure

What it looks like: An old-fashioned oil can or a genie’s lamp.

What it means: Your engine doesn’t have enough oil pressure to keep its moving parts properly lubricated. On some vehicles, this symbol also lights up if the engine’s oil level gets too low. Either way, you’ll want to pull over immediately, shut the vehicle off to avoid causing engine damage, and check your vehicle’s oil levels just in case.

2. Engine Temperature

What it looks like: A thermometer with three lines floating in water.

What it means: If this symbol appears, that means your engine is overheating and needs to shut down as soon as possible to avoid further damage. You’ll see this symbol if there’s not enough coolant circulating through the engine or if the cooling fans aren’t working properly. Once your car’s had a chance to cool down, make sure the coolant reservoir is filled to the proper level.

3. Check Engine

What it looks like: An outline of an engine.

What it means: This symbol is a catch-all for a wide variety of engine-related issues. These issues can range from a loose gas cap to a clogged catalytic converter or an overheated engine. If this symbol flashes, however, that means your engine is misfiring and at risk of suffering severe damage. Pull over immediately and have your vehicle towed to a service center.

4. Battery

What it looks like: An outline of a battery with the “+” and “-“ symbols.

What it means: There’s a problem with your vehicle’s charging system, which could be as simple as a loose battery terminal connection or as serious as a dying battery with one or more dead cells within. You could also see this symbol if the alternator fails, leaving your vehicle solely on battery power until it runs out of charge.

5. Low Fuel

What it looks like: A gas can or a fuel pump at a gas station.

What it means: You’re only a gallon or so away from running out of fuel. If you see this symbol, you’d better be near a gas station. You might also see this symbol if your fuel gauge is malfunctioning, although that’s a pretty rare thing to happen.

6. Airbag Indicator

What it looks like: A seat-belted figure being confronted by a circle or balloon.

What it means: There’s something wrong with your airbag system. Diagnosing this problem on your own not only requires special tools, but it’s also dangerous. You’re better off having your trusted mechanic or a dealer service technician take a look at the issue.

7. Security

What it looks like: A car with a padlock or the word “SECURITY”.

What it means: If this light appears and stays on or flashes continuously, then it’s likely due to a malfunction within your vehicle’s anti-theft system. Your anti-theft system is a crucial line of defense against auto theft, so you should have it checked out by a mechanic as soon as possible.

8. Washer Fluid Indicator

What it looks like: A windshield with a single wiper and a fountain of water.

What it means: You’re low on windshield washer fluid. It’s a fix that’s as simple as filling up the windshield washer reservoir. It’s also a good idea to check for leaks, just in case.

9. Anti-lock Brake Warning

What it looks like: A circle with the “ABS” legend inside, surrounded by a pair of round brackets.

What it means: If you make a stop hard enough to trigger the anti-lock brake system, you may see this symbol briefly (and feel some pedal pulsation). If you see this symbol while driving normally, however, that means there’s a fault in the anti-lock brake system.

10. Traction Control Indicator

What it looks like: An outline of a car with a couple of squiggly tire tracks.

What it means: One of your wheels just lost grip, prompting the traction control system to activate and actively prevent wheel spin until it regains traction. Some vehicles do this by applying the brakes at the wheel losing traction, while others redirect power to the wheels with the most traction.

11. Traction Control Malfunction

What it looks like: A warning triangle surrounded by a circle with an arrow.

What it means: There’s an issue with your traction control system. A faulty sensor or an incorrect reading of vehicle data could prevent your traction control system from working properly. You may also see a “traction control off” symbol, as a malfunction will also disable the traction control system entirely until it’s fixed.

12. Tire Pressure Monitoring System

What it looks like: A cross-section of a tire with an exclamation point inside.

What it means: This means one of your tires has too little or too much air in it. This symbol also appears if one of the TPMS sensors fails or if there’s a fault with the TPMS system itself.

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