20 Common Car Symbols on the Dashboard and Their Meaning

Hey I’m Mike.

If you’re like me, you take for granted the tiny car symbols on the dashboard because they never turn on. Sure, they flash ON when I start my pickup in the morning, but then they quickly disappear, and I cruise outta my driveway heading to work.

But sometimes you’re not so lucky.

Sometimes that light on the dashboard does NOT turn off! What do you do if that happens!?

Car Symbols on the Dashboard
Today we’re gonna talk about all those symbols on your dashboard instrument panel cluster

Fear not fellow traveler, I’ve spent a few hours compiling this guide to the most common symbols that could show up on your vehicle dashboard instrument panel, what they mean, how to fix them, and what the cost should be. Hopefully this awesome guide helps you the next time one of these hieroglyphic-type symbols show up.

1. Check Engine Light (MIL)

Skip to the good stuff:

Check Engine Light (MIL)

What It Means

A Check Engine Light, also referred to as a malfunction indicator lamp (MIL), signifies whether something is wrong with the engine. The color of this indicator is usually orange, yellow, or amber. Overall, the color and icon of this indicator vary depending on the manufacturer.

What Causes It

Many issues can cause the check engine light to turn on. Some examples of common problems related to this indicator include a misfiring engine or faulty gas cap.

Severity

If the check engine light is steady, this is an indication of a Minor malfunction. On the other hand, if the light is flashing, this is an indication of a Severe fault.

Some people can drive there cars for 5 years with the CEL on and have no issues… Others are not so lucky!

diagnostic troublecode diagram
An example of what an OBD2 code means. Diagram courtesy of www.outilsobdfacile.com – read more about DTCs on their site!

How to Fix

When the check light engine turns on, you should have your vehicle inspected by a qualified mechanic. The mechanic will be able to tell you the reason the indicator turned on. They will also provide you with the estimated cost of the repair job and will tell you whether certain parts need to be replaced.

If you’re know a thing or two about turnin’ wrenches, you may be able to fix it yourself.

  • First, grab yourself an OBD2 scan tool to pull the fault code that your ECU is throwing.
  • Second, copy down the code that your scanner pulled (should look something like Pxxxx)
  • Next, search that code in Google with your vehicle model and year
    p0420 code honda accord
  • Lastly, the results should show you exactly what you need to do to fix it. For example, a P0420 code means that you’ve got issues with your catalytic converter and they likely need to be replaced.

Price to Fix

The cost of repair depends on the reason the check engine light turned on in the first place. For example, if a faulty gas cap is an issue at hand, you can expect to pay as little as $25 for the replacement of the gas cap. However, if the catalytic converters are faulty, you may end up paying more than $1,000 for new OEM catalytic converters.

2. Service Engine Soon Light

Service Engine Soon Light

What It Means

There is sometimes a difference between the Service Engine Soon light vs Check Engine light on your dashbord. On vehicle brands, like Nissan, the SES light simply means you’re due for routine maintenance like an oil change. or your gasoline cap is loose.

If completing routing maintenance doesn’t clear the light, you will need to connect an OBD2 code reader like a Bluedriver (or borrow one from your local NAPA or Autozone) to determine if the ECU is throwing a P0420 diagnostic trouble code (DTC). This could mean you have a faulty Catylytic Converter or failed/dirty 02 sensor.

What Causes It

On vehicles like Nissan, you’re due for routine engine maintenance. Sometimes failed 02 sensors can cause this.

Severity

Changing your oil should clear the Service Engine Soon light. So the severity is typically minor.

How to Fix

Change your oil, tighten your gas gap, make sure all your fluids are topped up. Your Owner’s Manual should give you the specific engine maintenance timeline to follow.

Price to Fix

Less than $100 bucks to complete the engine service. If the light doesn’t clear, costs could be higher to troubleshoot the 02 sensor or replace the catalytic converter exhaust system.

3. Seatbelt Warning Light

Seatbelt Warning Light

What It Means

The Seatbelt Warning light reminds the driver and passengers to strap on their safety harness. In some vehicles, the seatbelt warning light will turn on to remind the front passenger to put on their seat harness as well.

What Causes It

There is a reed switch in the buckle of the driver’s seat belt. This switch activates each time the seatbelt is unfastened and fastened. The computer (ECM) of the car monitors the position of the switch to determine whether the driver has put on their seatbelt. If the driver doesn’t have their seatbelt on, the seatbelt warning light will flash, and there may be a chime as well.

Severity

It is crucial that you pay attention to the seatbelt warning light for your safety and the safety of your passengers. If the seatbelt warning light is malfunctioning, you should have it repaired as soon as possible. This is particularly true if you won’t remember to put on your seatbelt without a reminder from the indicator.

How to Fix

The seatbelt warning light may not turn on or off if the seatbelt switch gets stuck or broken. If this happens to you, try cleaning out the buckle connectors with some compressed air and Qtips or microfiber cloth. You may need to replace the buckle entirely if cleaning it out doesn’t work.

Price to Fix

The cost of replacing a seatbelt ranges from $20 to $250.

4. TPMS (Tire-Pressure Monitoring System) Light

TPMS (Tire-Pressure Monitoring System) Light

What It Means

The purpose of the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) light is to warn the driver when tire pressure is too low for safe driving.

What Causes It

If the TPMS light is illuminated, the tires of your vehicle are likely under-inflated. Continuing to drive with under inflated tires can lead to uneven tire wear and even failure.

Severity

You mustn’t ignore the TPMS light if it is illuminated. Under-inflated tires can create poor driving conditions, putting you and your passengers at risk of injury or death.

Now there’s a caveat here –

Sometimes TMPS sensors fail which cause the light to illuminate even though your tires are OK.  If you’ve inflated the tires to the recommend PSI and TPMS light is still on, it’s possible you have a bad sensor. If you don’t want to stomach the high price of replacing these sensors, you should be alright to ignore the light. Just make sure your check your tire PSI every few months.

How to Fix

When this indicator is illuminated, the first thing you should do is add air using a compressor. Continue to do this until the tire pressure reaches at least the minimum level specified by the vehicle manufacturer specification.

air compressor at gas station
Most gas stations will have an air compressor you can barrow to fill up your tires.

TDR Auto on Youtube published a nice video showing how to troubleshoot this light. He used an Autel MaxiTPMS TS401 TPMS Tool (you can get it here on Amazon) but at the time of writing this, the scanner cost over $100 bucks which might be out of some people’s price range.

Price to Fix

If a tire is under-inflated due to damage, you may need to buy a replacement tire. It will cost you anywhere from $100 to $300+ to replace one of your vehicle’s tires.

If the TPMS sensor is bad, costs are around $400 for parts, and $100 for labor.

5. Battery Light

Battery Light

What It Means

The battery light indicator is responsible for warning the driver about a battery charge capacity.

What Causes It

Here’s the 5 most common causes of the battery light I’ve seen:

  • Battery
  • Alternator
  • Regulator (part of the alternator)
  • Belt
  • Loose cables

If the battery light turns on and remains on as you are driving, the problem is likely a faulty alternator. It’s also possible that the alternator has failed entirely. If your car doesn’t start, then the light means your battery is to drained to crank the starter and engine.

Severity

I consider this a major issue. Since most vehicles are powered by electronics, batteries are important for your car or truck to run.

Your car sometimes be able to operate even though the battery light is illuminated if there’s still energy in the battery.

However, if you’re alternator is bad, all the power will be used up, and the battery will become dead… Along with your ride.

matrix code
Most cars these days all run on computers with lots of code… Sorta like the Matrix

How to Fix

If your car runs, you don’t have to worry about damaging your vehicle by driving while the battery light is on. But you should figure out if your battery is bad or your alternator is bad right away to avoid being stranded on the road.

Scotties Hobbies made a sweet video showing how to troubleshoot this light on a 2003 Dodge Caravan.

Price to Fix

The price of a new alternator ranges from $500 to $1,000.

$200-$400 is common for parts, and another $100-$200 for labor.

6. ABS (Anti-Lock Brakes) Light

ABS (Anti-Lock Brakes) Light

What It Means

The purpose of ABS is to ensure the tires remain in contact with the road as you brake your vehicle. Each time you start your vehicle, the ABS indicator will illuminate to let you know that everything is still working.

If you’ve ever been cruising down the road and romped on the brakes and felt your brake pedal “kick back” on your foot, this is the ABS engaging. It’s preventing your tires from locking up on the road resulting in your tires sliding all over.

What Causes It

If the ABS indicator remains on as you drive, this is an indication of a problem with the anti-lock braking system. Depending on the vehicle, the ABS light will blink trouble codes (usually called OBD2 C Codes) to help you determine the cause of the problem.

The most common causes are:

  • Low brake fluid
  • Blown ABS fuse
  • Failed or failing abs pump
  • Faulty control unit
  • Solenoid malfunction

Severity

I might get in trouble for this, but I don’t think ABS is mandatory in a vehicle, so as long as your brakes work, and you don’t drive like Mad Max, I classify this as a Minor severity.

mad max semi
You don’t drive like Mad Max… right!?

How to Fix

Repairs and anti-lock brake systems typically require specialized tools and in-depth knowledge. Therefore, most drivers are better off taking their vehicle to a mechanic for diagnosis and repair.

2CarPros wrote a great guide on troubleshooting ABS lights. You can watch their full video below:

Price to Fix

The price to fix an anti-lock brake system depends on the cause of the problem. Replacement ABS control modules cost up to $600, while replacement ABS wheel sensors cost up to $250. A bottle of DOT 3 brake fluid is like $8 bucks and fuses are cheap too.

7. Airbag SRS Light

Airbag SRS Light 2

What It Means

The Supplemental Restraint System (SRS) light warns the driver about a potential issue with the Airbag system of the vehicle.

What Causes It

Airbag SRS lights illuminate to indicate an issue the airbag, the computer, or wiring associated with the SRS.

If the SRS light is blinking, count the blinks and look it up in your Owner’s Manual. These 3 or so blinks are a code telling you where the fault is. Sometimes the fix is an simple as a loose seat connector or bad fuse.

Severity

A faulty airbag system can lead to injury or even death in the event you are involved in an accident. This is because the airbags may fail to protect the driver and passengers adequately. It is also possible the malfunction of the airbags will cause injury.

For this reason, I’d put this as a Major issue that should be fixed ASAP.

airbags save lives

 

How to Fix

There’s a few quick things to check as demonstrated in the video below by motoforlyfe who ended up fixing his airbag light with a simple fuse replacement!

If your fuse is fine and your seat connectors are solid, I’d suggest taking the vehicle to your mechanic for diagnosis and repair.

Price to Fix

The cost of repair depends on the nature of the issue. For example, if a faulty airbag is an issue, you may end up paying $300 for a replacement airbag plus $200+ for labor.

If the fuse needs replaced or the seat connector is loose, this fix is almost free.

8. Door Open (Ajar)

Door Open Ajar 2

What It Means

The purpose of the door open (ajar) indicator is to warn the driver that one of the doors is not closed correctly.

What Causes It

If the door open indicator is not working correctly, this typically means that there is an issue with the mechanical parts of the switch in the car door, or the latch is not securing properly to signal the sensor.

Severity

This is a Minor issue, but can quickly turn into a Major issue if you don’t properly close the door and it comes flying over while you’re cruising down I-90 and 80 MPH! 😀

How to Fix

Closing the door should be sufficient to get the ‘door open indicator’ to turn off. If this doesn’t fix it, you may need to purchase a replacement switch.
shut car door

Price to Fix

The average cost for the replacement of a power door lock switch is about $120.

9. Windshield Washer Fluid Low

Windshield Washer Fluid Low

What It Means

The purpose of the washer fluid low warning light is to indicate that the driver should fill up the windshield washer reservoir with fluid.

What Causes It

When the fluid for the windshield washer is too low, this indicator will illuminate until the driver fills it back up.

Severity

The severity of this issue is relatively low, especially if you’re not driving in bad weather. However, keep in mind that your windshield system may not work adequately with low fluid levels. Depending on driving conditions, this can be dangerous.

How to Fix

Filling up the reservoir with windshield washer fluid should cause the light to turn off.

refilling windshield washer fluid

Price to Fix

Windshield washer fluid costs less than $5 at most car shops or gas stations.

10. Traction Control Light

Traction Control Light 2

What It Means

The purpose of the traction control system (TCS) is to make sure your vehicle maintains traction in rain, ice, or snow. If the traction control warning (TCS) light is on, your car may be more likely to slide in poor road conditions.

What Causes It

You may see the light turn on when the vehicle first starts. It may also illuminate if it’s engaged and preventing your tires from breaking traction with the road.

Four most common causes are:

  • Lost traction or TCS engaged to prevent losing traction
  • Faulty wheel speed sensor
  • Frayed sensor wiring
  • TCS computer failure

Severity

It is okay to continue driving your vehicle with the traction control light on. However, you should exercise more caution when driving. For your safety, it is better that you have the issue resolved sooner rather than later.

How to Fix

If you’re driving, pull the call over, shut the engine off, and turn it back on. If the sensor, computer, and wires are in good condition, the light should clear on it’s own. Also, check to make sure you’re not driving on Black Ice roads.

Car skidding on an icy road
If you live up north, you’re familiar with Black Ice roads… it’s scary stuff because the road looks clear but it’s covered with a sheet of ice!

 

Price to Fix

The cost to replace a traction control switch is about $100. But it could be something as simple as slowing down your car.

11. Engine Coolant Temperature Light

Engine Coolant Temperature light

What It Means

The purpose of the engine coolant temperature indicator is to warn about high temperatures in the engine bay.

What Causes It

The most common causes of this lamp illuminating is the coolant/anti-freeze level in the reservoir is low.

Other common causes include:

  • Defective Engine Coolant Temperature Sensor
  • Low Antifreeze/Coolan
  • Clogged Coolant Hose
  • Leaking or blown head gasket
ECT photo
A bad ECT sensor can cause high engine temp readings!

Severity

You can cause severe damage to your vehicle’s engine if you continue to drive while the engine coolant temperature indicator is on. Because of this, I rate this lamp a Major warning. Pull the car over and get it checked out as quick as possible.

How to Fix

When the indicator turns on, you should pull over to give the coolant a chance to cool down. If you suspect low coolant levels are the issue, wait for the engine of the vehicle to cool down completely before checking the fluid levels. Take your car to the mechanic if the indicator continues to turn on and off periodically.

coolant reservoir tank leak
Hopefully you just need to top up your Antifreeze/Coolant to clear this warning light.

Price to Fix

The cost of repair depends on the exact nature of the issue. A gallon of Prestone 50/50 Antifreeze is around $15. If the ECT is faulty, you can expect to pay anywhere from $120-$180 on parts and labor. If the head gasket gets blown, repairs could be in the $1,500 or higher range.

12. Oil Pressure Light

Oil Pressure Light

What It Means

The oil pressure light is responsible for indicating to the driver that the oil level or pressure is too low.

What Causes It

Common causes of this issue include:

Severity

I rate this one a Major issue.

Insufficient oil pressure can mean inadequate lubrication. When this indicator turns on, you should stop driving immediately to prevent damage to your vehicle.

How to Fix

The first thing to do with this warning light is to watch this video from our buddy Scotty. He walks you through changing the oil, filter, and oil pressure sending unit which cleared the light on his old Honda.

If an oil change and OPS replacement doesn’t clear the light, you will probably need to get a mechanic or professional involved.

Price to Fix

The Sending Unit only costs about $40. Combined with a $40 oil change and your total repair costs should be about $80 if you do it yourself.

If this doesn’t clear the light, you may need to consider changing the oil pump or even rebuilding your motor.

13. Oil Temperature Light

Oil Temperature Light 2

 

What It Means

The purpose of the Oil Temperature light is to indicate the level of oil is low, or the oil pressure is low.

What Causes It

This indicator turns on when the temperature of the oil is too high.

  • Faulty Oil Temperature Sensor
  • Old or dirty oil
  • Old engine

Severity

I consider this a Major issue. Anytime you have high temperatures in your engine you risk blowing gaskets or seals or grenading your entire engine.

How to Fix

CarsNToys made an excellent video troubleshooting an Oil Temperature light. If you’re seeing a P0196 / P0197 / P0198 fault code, this is the best way to fix it.

Price to Fix

Parts to replace a Oil Temperature sensor are $50-$100 and Labor is generally another $100. I’d try replacing your engine oil and filter while your at it. If this doesn’t clear the light, you’ve got larger engine issues to deal with that could get costly. Take it to a mechanic to get their advice.

14. Shift Lock Light

Shift Lock

What It Means

The purpose of the shift lock indicator is to tell the driver that they need to engage the brake to shift the gear selector

What Causes It

If you need to engage the break to get your vehicle out of neutral or to start the ignition, this light will turn on.

Severity

Minor.

How to Fix

Step on the brake to get this indicator to stop illuminating.

If this light is on and you cannot shift out of Park, then you may have to replace a fuse. The video below by AutOdometer demonstrates this on a 1999 Toyota 4Runner that couldn’t shift out of park

Price to Fix

A car fuse kit will run you $10, but you may just have to press the brake pedal to remove this light 🙂

15. Fog Lights

Fog lights on

What It Means

The purpose of the fog lights car symbol on the dashboard is to indicate the fogs lights are on.

What Causes It

When you turn on your fog lights, the indicator for fog lights on the dashboard should turn on.

 

16. Low Fuel Light

Low Fuel Light

What It Means

The purpose of the low fuel indicator is to tell the driver that they should fill up their gasoline (or diesel) tank. You don’t wanna run outta fuel!

What Causes It

The low fuel indicator light turns on when a vehicle has about 50 miles of range left.

Severity

This is something that my wife and I have had a few debates on. I’m the kind of guy that likes to fuel up when the gauge hits the half-way mark… but she seems to consider it a challenge to see how far she can drive AFTER the Low Fuel light shows up! 🙂

So I’d rate this a Major issue, but some people consider it Minor.

How to Fix

Once you fill your gas tank 1-2 gallons, this indicator will turn off. The gas tank does not have to be filled up entirely for this indicator to turn off.

Price to Fix

The cost to fill up a car with gas depends on the size of the tank and the type of gas. $45 is average.

17. Immobilizer Anti-Theft Light

Immobilizer Anti-Theft

What It Means

The Immobilizer warning light (looks like a flashing fey light) typically turns on when the vehicle’s anti-theft system is not able to recognize the car key. If your key fob has failed or fuse has blown this light could flash. Try a new key.

What Causes It

Typically seen on Honda Accords, Acuras and Pilots; when you put the key into the ignition the car should read the chip (on the key fob) and de-activate the immobilizer. Your car is then able to start. If the key light keeps flashing, check these two things:

  • Using the wrong key
  • Blown Fuse (look for ACG S in the fuse box)

Severity

I consider this Major because your car will not start with this light flashing.  However, it could be Minor because simply using the master key fob will let you start your car.  If the master key doesn’t start the car, you probably have a bad fuse.

Immobilizer light keys
If the Immobilizer light is flashing, try using the master key fob as shown in this diagram.

How to Fix

If the Immobilizer light is flashing, it means that you’re using a key with a chip that’s not recognized by the car. Try using the key with the master fob on it, or checking your fuse. Check It Out !!! made a video demonstrating replacing his fuse to fix this problem on 2007 Honda Pilot.

Price to Fix

Using the Master Key Fob is free. A full car fuse kit costs around $10.

18. Power Steering Warning light

Power Steering warning light

What It Means

The Power Steering Warning light indicates that there is an issue with the hydraulic power steering system. This pumps generated up to 1,500lbs of pressure to make your car easy to turn. If the Power Steering isn’t functioning, turning your car will feel like grappling with a 100lb bulldog.

What Causes It

Low power steering fluid is the common cause for the indicator to turn on. If the fluid is low, filling up the reservoir with some quality Prestone Power Steering Fluid should clear this light.

power steering reservoir location with cap
Here’s where you add new Power Steering to fill the reservoir and (hopefully) clear this light.

Severity

Depending on you physical strength, this might not be a major issue. But if your hydraulic power steering is disabled it will be 80% more difficult to turn the steering wheel on your car.

How to Fix

Filling up the Power Steering fluid reservoir usually fixes this warning light. Of course our buddy, Scotty, made a video showing how to check and fill your fluid. Check it out below.

Price to Fix

Power Steering fluid costs $5-$10 bucks at your local parts store. Assuming you don’t have a leak or anything else, this is a pretty straight-forward repair.

 

19. EPC (Electronic Power Control) Light

EPC Electronic Power Control Light.

What It Means

The EPC light is responsible for indicating that there is an issue with the electronic power control (EPC) system. It’s usually seen in combination with a Check Engine Light (like P0222) and symptoms rang from poor acceleration to activating “limp mode.” It seems to be more common on Volkswagen or Audi vehicles.

What Causes It

There are a few possible reasons for an EPC light turning on. Here’s three common causes of an EPC light:

  • Faulty Throttle Body
  • Accelerator position sensor
  • Damaged ABS sensor
throttle body on car
Replacing the throttle body usually fixes this

Severity

This is a fairly Major issue as it usually causes your car to hesitate when accelerating, idle poorly or a wide variety of other symptoms.

How to Fix

Scanning your car with an OBD2 adapter should reveal the trouble code culprit. Here’s a detailed video from Ballin On A Budget Auto who was able to fix this light on his own 2012 VW Jetta

Price to Fix

Throttle Bodies cost around $150 for the part. Factor in another $150 for labor if you have to hire a shop mechanic.

20. Theft Security Light

Theft Security Light

What It Means

The Security Warning light means that your vehicle’s theft-deterrent system is malfunctioning. The light will usually be blinking and could indicate a bad key. It’s seen most commonly on Ford and GM vehicles.

What Causes It

There’s three main causes of the Theft Security Warning light to flash:

  • Problematic key fob
  • Bad ground
  • Failing after-market security system

If the theft-deterrent system is not factory-installed that’s likely where the issue resides. Either the system cannot recognize your keyless entry signal/key, the wiring, the anti-theft module, or the keyless entry system may be damaged.

If you do not have a third-party theft system installed, then the problem is either a bad key fob, or a poor ground.

Severity

Minor to Major. Your vehicle likely won’t start with this light, so it’s major to get it fixed. But fixing the issue could be as simple and finding the poorly grounded screw, and sanding the paint to expose bare metal to create a solid ground connection again.

How to Fix

FordTechMakuloco created the most comprehensive video guide showing how to fix this issue (there was a bad ground bracket that was painted) on a Ford Focus that is applicable to many cars.

Price to Fix

If you have an aftermarket anti-theft system, you may have to replace the entire system or get it worked on by the shop who installed it. $100-$200 should be a safe estimate.

However, as shown in the video above, the issue was easily fixed with some sand paper 🙂

common-car-symbols

Conclusion

If you want to be a better and more informed driver, it is important that you are able to understand your vehicle’s dashboard. Hopefully, this article helped you gain a better understanding of 20 of the most common car symbols on the dash panel.

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