The Check-Engine Light Icon Is Terrible And Due For An Update

Illustration for article titled The Check-Engine Light Icon Is Terrible And Due For An Update
Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

I don’t know if there’s anyone out there that actually likes the check engine light. If you’re seeing it while driving, it just means that the rest of your day is going to suck and potentially end with you significantly poorer than when you woke up. It’s even a crappy solution to a problem—it’s crazy that cars don’t just tell you the OBD code itself that’s making the light go on, right there on the dash. On top of all this, as a symbol it kind of sucks, too. So let’s talk about that.

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Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

Most people, even people that don’t really know what engines actually look like at all, know that the little funny symbol that looks like a submarine is referring, hilariously generally, to the hot, noisy lump of metal that makes everything go.

But if we actually take a moment to look, I mean really look at the check engine light symbol, I think we’ll find that the thing really doesn’t look all that much like an engine at all, and the visual identifiers its relying on for its “engineness” are almost all things that modern engines no longer have.

Look for yourself at the two most common forms of check engine light symbols, two versions that I’m calling the “inline version” and the “vee version”:

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Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

These aren’t what modern engines look like—in fact, if we look at the four main visual references that are used to make this look engine-ish—air cleaner, fan, oil sump/pan, and whatever the hell that thing hanging off the back is supposed to be—then the first two are in the wrong places for a modern engine, and the last one is just kinda weird.

Is that supposed to be a transmission bell housing? If so, why is it on the engine? And why does it have a little neck? And why does it bulge out?

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Talking to our own David Tracy about all of this, he seemed to think the only thing it could possibly be is an exposed torque converter, so that’s what I drew here when I tried to extrapolate what these engines might actually look like, based on the two most popular versions:

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Illustration: Jason Torchinsky
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I guess these sorta work, but neither of these looks like engines that would have been found in most mainstream cars in the past 30 years or so. Modern engines don’t drive fans right off belts on the front of the engine itself, air cleaners don’t look like that anymore and are almost never just centered on top of engines now.

This symbol needs an update. So I gave it a go, with an attempt to try to keep it as simple as I could while still being unmistakably a modern engine.

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I picked an inline-four as the base engine icon, because while it’s by no means a universal standard, it’s the most common engine type found on cars, overall, so I think it makes sense if we want one standard symbol and not different ones for opposed Subarus or V-engine’d Corvettes or whatever.

Here’s what I came up with:

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Illustration: Jason Torchinsky
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I think this feels much more modern engine-like. You get a hint of a manifold there, a valve cover, some sort of accessory pulley setup like an alternator or a/c compressor, proportions that feel like a modern overhead valve engine (David was insistent about that) and I got rid of the weird torque converter whatever and put on a more normal flywheel housing at the back.

Let’s see how it looks in context:

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Photo: Alfa Romeo
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Yeah! I think that feels like an engine! There’s a bit more detail than the old one, but I don’t think it’s too complicated.

I guess, really, the life of this thing may be limited as we move more to EVs. EVs are so radically different conceptually than combustion engines, but there still may be cases where the electric motor itself is having trouble, and in that case even this new check engine light won’t make sense. In that case, I suggest this:

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Illustration: Jason Torchinsky
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Electric motors really aren’t much to look at, I know.

Look, if we still have to have this dumb light instead of just legally being required to show OBD codes, why not update the stupid symbol? It’s never been good, and I can’t imagine anyone has any emotional attachment to it, right?

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So let’s make it better! Who’s with me?

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

DISCUSSION

pupperoni747
Mazdarati

Counterpoint: the check-engine light is fucking great and we should never let go of it, even as we enter the EV age. It should be one of those amazing things that lives on long after its real-world counterpart dies.

See also: “save” icons, phone handset symbols, stopwatch icons on timers, an old-fashioned camera as the FaceTime logo, shutter sounds on your phone, the fact that battery icons on everything are just an image of a Duracell, and best of all, the fire station street signs with the ancient-looking fire trucks on them.