Anxiety (not paradise) by the dashboard light

posted: July 8, 2023

tl;dr: Another way cars have been made less fun is through the proliferation of dashboard warning lights...

I was about to hop on my Harley to meet up with some friends for a morning ride (the best time-of-day to ride during the summer in the Valley of the Sun) when my 85 year-old neighbor approached me. I could tell right away by the expression on her face that something was wrong. Her car, a Toyota, was parked on the curb nearby. In somewhat disjointed sentences, she finally communicated to me that there was a dashboard indicator light which was on, and she was afraid to drive her car.

She wasn’t sure which indicator light it was, but she said she had called her mechanic and he said it was due to tire pressure. I had her describe the indicator light to me, but it wasn’t the “TPMS” indicator that some vehicles have. Instead, she described an icon that didn’t make any sense to me. After retrieving the owner’s manual, she pointed to it, and I confirmed that it was the indicator for the Tire Pressure Management System. One of her tires had probably lost a little bit of air, taking it below the threshold that triggers the indicator light. She didn’t know what to do: should she not drive the car and have it towed? Could she safely drive it? She was in a panic about what to do.

I didn’t have time to check the tire pressure on all four tires. I did a quick walkaround of her car, and pointed out to her that none of the tires looked at all visibly flat. I told her she could drive it over to the nearest tire store, about two miles away, and have them diagnose it for her and, more than likely, put some air in the tires and solve her problem. She opened the driver’s door and started panicking even more: her purse was gone! Someone must have stolen it from the car while she was speaking to me!

I calmly tried to dissuade her from this theory. We don’t live on a busy city street in a bad neighborhood, we live on the quietest street in a quiet low-rise condo development in Scottsdale, Arizona. There is no through traffic at all in our neighborhood, as the only way in is also the only way out. We had been standing near the car the whole time, and there was no one else visible anywhere we looked. In as light-hearted a tone as possible, I suggested that she had merely misplaced her purse. She asked me to help her find it. So I did.

A portion of a black vehicular dashboard, with most of a circular RPM guage visible on the right, with an odometer and gear indicator inside, along with ten different icon lights lit up in either red or yellow to the left of the guage or inside of it

Hearts start racing when one of these indicator lights comes on

She hadn’t put it in the glove box, nor had it slipped under one of the front seats. It didn’t seem to be anywhere in the car, but in her mind that confirmed her theory that someone had snuck up and stolen it, and silently disappeared. I suggested that she retrace her steps back into her house, and look there. She wanted me to accompany her, so I did so. As she walked into her kitchen, she saw the purse.

Finally she knew what to do and could do it, now that she had her driver’s license. She praised me effusively, which indicated to me that her heart was still racing from the entire episode. I reaffirmed what she should do next, bid her good day, and hopped on my bike and rode off, wondering whether we as technologists have done the right thing by adding so many monitoring systems and warning lights and buzzers to modern products such as cars and appliances.

The problem is that these monitoring systems cause anxiety and panic attacks in many people, especially non-technical and non-mechanically-inclined folks, which is the majority of the population. When these people see an indicator light, they often assume the worst, thinking that it means: “The car is about to explode! Abandon it and seek shelter immediately!” It is almost never anything close to that serious, but most people don’t realize that.

I developed a healthy, skeptical attitude towards car dashboard warning lights when I was taught to drive as a teenager by my father, who called them “idiot lights”, a term I’ve heard others use. Sometimes they are just wrong, and there is no problem with the car. Often the monitoring sensor itself is what has gone bad. Sometimes what has arisen is a subtle problem in the air/fuel mixture or exhaust which might indicate a minor decrease in performance or an increase in emissions, but which is not going to prevent the car from moving safely.

In the case of the TPMS, most of the time it just means that one of the tires has finally lost enough air (or the outside temperature has dropped due to cold weather) to put the tire pressure just below the threshold. Decades ago cars didn’t have TPMS: we either occasionally checked our tire pressure with a gauge, or noticed that one of the tires looked a little flat. Somehow, we survived without TPMS. Perhaps it saves a few lives a year by discouraging people from driving on tires with low pressure, although a fully flat tire should be noticeable to almost all drivers. TPMS comes at a cost, as it causes anxiety in many people. As the person in my family who is responsible for putting air in tires after someone else has noticed the TPMS indicator, I can attest to this.

There’s got to be a better way to communicate information to the driver without causing as much anxiety. Perhaps instead of simple idiot lights, the dashboard can display text which calmly describes the situation and gives a recommendation about what to do. This could even be done in a friendly manner such as “Hello, I’ve noticed that one of your tires has lost a little bit of air. It’s safe to drive for now, but you should have it checked out and some air put into it soon.” Throw in some smiley face emojis, and the world will be a better place, with fewer anxious drivers.

Related post: The decline of teenage car culture