Automotive Warning Light Anti-logic

We’ve taken thousands of calls in service departments over the years and there is nearly no end to the way drivers describe the various warning lights that pop up on their instrument panels. These, of course, are not car people, just average every day drivers trying to describe a symbol that was presumably designed to be universally understood around the globe.


Tire Pressure Monitor SymbolThe Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) symbol is the least understood of all and sees the greatest variation of descriptions. It is also what prompted us to pay attention to and collect more descriptions of other symbols. The TPMS light is supposed to be a slice or cutaway of a tire. In all our years in the automotive industry, we have never actually seen a tire slice or met someone who has seen one. How are average, every day drivers supposed to recognize it the first, second or even the third time they see it?

Some TPMS warning light description are:

  • An exclamation point in parenthesis
  • An exclamation point in brackets
  • An exclamation point in a horseshoe
  • Flames – destined to be a classic
  • A wishbone
  • An exclamation point in a fish bowl
  • An exclamation point in a cup
  • And, a real favorite, a candle in a glass!

The descriptions fall out of each person’s life experiences. So take the example of a recent call from a lady who was driving (which is important) who said there was a flashing red light on her dash. When asked to describe it, she said, “well maybe a man on a horse”.

Seat Belt Reminder SymbolSo, imagine someone who perhaps breeds horses, or simply rides them as a pastime. She’s driving and cannot actually stare at the warning light. Plus its flashing, which can give the illusion of movement. It turned out she was not wearing her safety belt and the Seat Belt Reminder light was on!


Oil Trouble Indicator SymbolThe example that really told us we had to post these, was a call that described a red warning light as a Genie’s lamp! We love it, and can only imagine the driver had just watched a favorite cartoon with her kids! It is, of course the Oil Pressure light. Most vehicles simply don’t go through oil like they did years ago, so seeing this light is actually quite rare, but no less important than it ever was.

Cruise Control Indicator SymbolThis one was described as a “green dot with a line through it”. The driver was at the wheel at the time, which is the only explanation for that description for this Cruise Control symbol.

Parking Assistance SymbolYou’ll love this one. We’ve had a number of drivers call this one a “P with a sailboat next to it”! How a sailboat could ever be associated with a car is anyone’s guess, but this Park Assist symbol includes what is supposed to represent a radar signal bouncing off an obstruction. The obstacle looks just a bit too much like a sail.

Differential Lock IndicatorThis version of the differential lock symbol has been described as a letter ‘H’ with an X in it. Some manufacturers include a tell tale with ‘O’s in it to indicate free wheeling. We await a tic tac toe game description from a driver!

Tail Light Out Indicator SymbolThis is easily recognized as an image of an automobile. However, it has eyelashes! Of course, the eyelashes actually represent light beams emanating from from lights. Tailights in this case. A light out indicator in fact.

Check Engine Light SymbolSadly, we’ve heard a dozen descriptions for the Check Engine light that have nothing to do with an actual engine seen from the side, and never thought to save them. We do remember one customer who called it a fan. At least there is one in the image!

Since first running this article, a customer called to talk about the movie camera light on her dash. We’ve also heard of a driver who thought it resembled a “personal underwater exploration vehicle”! The fan becomes a propeller. That light did not have the word “Check” embedded in it. And we just heard from a man whose son described what eventually turned out to be the Check Engine light as “three elongated circles with some lines connecting them.” We can’t see that no matter how hard we try!

We’ll post more as they come up, for any and all symbols.


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