Here's what all those dashboard warning lights mean
Wondering where to direct your panic? Use Top Gear's handy guide to decipher those possibly expensive warning lights!
Brake warning light
The bracketed circle with the exclamation screamer is the most searched for dashboard icon. It’s possibly the most important, too. If it’s flagging, check the handbrake. Even the electronic ones. Still red? [Deep intake of breath] Time to call the garage.Advertisement - Page continues below
Airbag warning light
No, that is not a person sitting back enjoying a full Strawberry Moon sunset. The giant dot above the person is meant to indicate an airbag warning, so if you see this icon flash up, you might not be protected in a collision. Best get it checked out.
Battery Warning Light
The plus/minus symbols in the rectangle denote the 12V battery that provides starter power. If it's not charging, or the alternator's failed, this icon pops up. Jump leads or power pack at the ready.Advertisement - Page continues below
We're all really used to seeing an electricity bolt through a battery as an indication for charging, but in this case, you need to charge your electric vehicle battery, not your mobile or 12V pack. Initially, this icon will be orange, but could switch to red.
There's actually a few icons to denote ports that are open when they should be closed. The boot, the bonnet, the car doors.
Be good: pull over, check and resolve, like the model driver we know you can be.
Anti-lock braking system (ABS) warning
Since the '80s, electronic gizmos have made your car safer. In the event of a hard brake, you could lock your wheels and skid. ABS is designed to prevent that (by rapidly reducing and increasing the brake pressure if it senses locking). If this light shows unexpectedly, you need to get it checked out.
Seatbelt warning light
It's been the law to wear a belt since 1983. This icon is a modern classic, but now, with sensors fitted for the front and rear passengers, you'll hear the ping – even if it's just a heavy bag on the seat. Drivers can be fined for any passengers under the age of 14 not wearing a belt, if caught.Advertisement - Page continues below
Power steering warning light
The power steering helps the wheel to feel lighter to turn. Any time an exclamation mark turns up next to an icon, it indicates there's a fault. If the power steering isn't working, the car may still be drivable. Just expect to put in more effort than usual.
Night vision animal warning
And just like a modern car's ability to detect human traffic, the capability to see animals on pitch black country roads can be life-saving – for all involved. In more premium models, you might also get an infra-red camera image on the head-up display, SAS-style.Advertisement - Page continues below
Check engine light
Perhaps the most panic-inducing of all the warning lights, the engine management light (EML) tells you if you have a potential issue with the engine, exhaust or emissions.
Running low on oil is one (orange) thing, running out (red) will cause untold harm to your engine and result in some hefty repair bills. Protect your vital organs from the black market, check your oil on the regular.
Showing tyre tread on a one-dimensional icon is completely impossible. Don't be embarrassed if you never really understood this icon – it does look like a one-eyed monster. It's all about your car's TPMS – tyre pressure management system. Once you've reinflated your tyres, you'll probably need to reset something to clear the warning light, too.
Low fuel warning light
We debated whether or not to include this one. It's too obvious and needs little explanation. If that orange light is on, though, you've got fewer than 50 miles – depending on how fast you're travelling. Sometimes arrows indicate the side your fuel tank is on... sometimes not. Don't worry, the pump hose will stretch.
Electronic Stability Program/Control (ESP/ESC) warning
The electronic stability program, or control – shortened to ESP or ESC – is (now) a legally required crash avoidance feature working in the background. If there's a loss of control, it applies braking to the wheels spinning more quickly to help the driver regain control. Sometimes found in a triangle. The light, that is, not the wheels.
Coolant temperature - engine warning
The toothbrush coming out of the ocean is actually supposed to denote a thermometer. When temps get too hot, Houston, you have a problem. Orange is low, red is 'pull over, turn it off and pray nothing's melted'. Or something.
Active lane departure
If this feature has been activated and you don’t put your indicators on before you make a lane change, you might find your car will try and pull you back to the centre of your lane. Like an omnipotent force working against you...
Electrical fault (EV)
Of course, driving an electric car isn't all rainbows and cupcakes. If your EV has developed an electrical fault, then you're not going anywhere, signposted by something that looks like this. And the fact you're not moving anywhere, of course.
Limited EV power
When you're warned you've got low battery, that's the time to charge. Cut it too fine and you might see this little fella light up. This Aesop-inspired tortoise indicates that power is limited and you'll be forced to a crawl.
Forward collision warning
Known as FCW or FCA, the forward collision warning (or alert) icon can help you go about your day without drama. Anecdotally, some systems can be a bit cautious at the sight of a shadow, flashing BRAKE! before your very eyes. Either that, or it's sensed something supernatural, which is perhaps scarier.
It might look like some icon designer had an issue with a child's drawing of the sun. Instead the lamp warning light indicates an issue with the headlights. You'll find that icon dotted about your cabin wherever there's a light, but the dash icon only refers to the headlamps.
Icy road conditions
As we creep (rapidly) towards winter, you'll be seeing your car's temperature gauge flashing snowflakes as it indicates more risky driving conditions. When it's icy, your car's dash will let you know with a symbol like this.
Now mandated on all new cars since July 2022, speed limiters are currently optional to use. They're particularly useful for average speed zones where a deviation from the stated limit can land you a hefty fine and points on your licence.
One of the more compelling arguments for picking an EV is the fewer components and less servicing and maintenance required. Great news for your wallet. That's not to say you'll never have mechanical problems, though. See this orange light and you'll need to get onto your garage.
Washer fluid warning
The washer fluid icon is a busy one featuring plenty of action: spray, a screen, moisture on said screen. If it's on, you're running low on washer fluid. It's particularly annoying in the more inclement months where muddy surface water, flicked up from lorries, is all your wipers can shift. Take a refillable bottle in the car just in case.
Night vision pedestrian warning
No matter your views on autonomous driving, the car's ability to detect potential obstacles, like people on the road, in the dark (when human vision is arguably most compromised) is something very few of us would criticise.
Active Driver Assist
Using facial recognition cameras, Active Driver Assist checks you're not snoozing while you're cruising. Often accompanied by a message to take a break, this icon may turn orange or red, depending on the intensity of the issue detected.
Auto Glide Control
EVs can legitimately coast. When that's happening, this 'auto-glide' dash icon lets you know. AGC helps you make the most of your electric range – note, this icon also looks like a foot lifting off a pedal or a green leaf in some models.
Automatic high-beam lights
Cool LED matrix technology switches off the lights when it detects approaching cars and shuts the brightness down in that specific area more responsively. Blinding.
Cruise control active
Some cars have cruise control activation on the steering wheel controls, others on its own independent stalk. Green means it's activated, allowing you to relieve your right ankle of its usual duty. It's not for everyone, but it can be useful (and more comfortable) on longer motorway stints.
Cruise control distance monitor
Setting the distance between you and the car in front is an evolution of cruise control. Once you've worked out yours, press this one to select how much distance your car will be from the one in front. If the little car icon doesn't appear, or goes white, it's likely the radar hasn't picked up a car to follow.
When you're in economy mode in your hybrid or electric vehicle, this helpful green flag will show. Acceleration won't be quite as instantaneous but your juice should last a bit longer. What it stands for remains a mystery to this day.
EV Ready mode
As tech moves on, there are more green icons to remind you something is acting positively... like this friendly little reminder that you're running on zero emissions. All you hybrid drivers should also benefit from better fuel economy too.
Night vision indicator
The night vision feature is one of those newer features, more often found on ultra-premium cars or expensive upgrade packages. Like your airbag, it's a passive technology. You don't know it's there until you need it. When the sensors detect low or no light, night vision will kick in, and this green icon will illuminate to let you know the car's got your back. Neat.
Stop/start technology is loved like Marmite. Intended to cut emissions when you're stopped waiting at lights, or outside schools, or idling for a while, this emissions-reducing tech is getting better. When it's in operation, you'll get a green A icon, just like this.
E-Mode for hybrids
This dash icon is E-mode for hybrids. When the line is through the letter, it indicates that the feature isn't available. It often flags up when you're driving faster than the car can recharge the battery. Since the car can't replace the juice, you have to take your foot off the gas to get E-mode activation back.