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Top Gear Advice

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!

Compilation of dashboard icons in green, red, white and orange
  • Brake warning light

    park brake icon

    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.

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  • Airbag warning light

    Airbag dashboard icon on a black background

    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

    Battery management 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.

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  • Battery power

    Battery needs charging dash icon for EV

    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.

  • Door open

    Door open indicator on a car's dashboard

    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

    Anti-lock braking system (ABS) icon as it shows on a car's dashboard

    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

    Seatbelt not plugged in indicator on car's dashboard

    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.

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  • Power steering warning light

    Power steering dashboard light with steering wheel in red and exclamation mark in red to the right

    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

    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.

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  • Check engine light

    Engine management dash icon in orange, showing outline of engine

    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.

  • Engine oil

    Oil check icon from dashboard, in orange, showing oil can outline with drip from spout

    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.

  • Tyre pressure

    Tyre pressure monitoring alert icon in orange

    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

    Low fuel indicator, a fuel pump in orange

    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

    Electronic Stability Control icon of car with skid marks under tyres, as it would display on car dashboard

    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 coolant icon for a dashboard in orange

    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

    Active Lane Departure icon from a dashboard

    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)

    Electrical fault on an EV dash icon

    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

    Limited power mode dash icon - orange tortoise in orange circle

    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

    Forward collision warning icon for dash

    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.

  • Headlamp light

    Headlamp warning showing lightbulb with dashes denoting beams emitting and exclamation mark inside bulb

    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

    Icy road conditions dashboard icon in orange

    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.

  • Speed limiter

    Speed limiter

    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. 

  • Mechanical fault

    Mechanical fault on an EV dash icon

    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

    Washer fluid warning is a windscreen with a wiggly line half way and a spray of water up and splitting into an M shape

    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

    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

    Active Driver Assist icon

    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

    Dash icon for Auto Glide Control indicator

    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

    Automatic high-beam indicator

    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

    Cruise Control SET/Active on dashboard icon

    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

    Cruise Control distance monitor icon on dashboard

    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.

  • Eco mode

    Eco mode dash icon in an electric vehicle

    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

    EV Ready mode featuring a green car with EV lettering in a green circle

    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

    Night vision indicator on a dashboard

    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

    stop/start

    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

    Dash icon for hybrid e-mode

    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.

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