Sun Ra - Column for 1/6

Idiot Lights

Whilst in California for the winter holidays, I was fortunate enough to borrow my mother's car. It's a Porsche Boxster. Silly name, zippy car. Tooling around California in it was fun, but did serve to underline my inherent lack of desire for a sports car. Firstly, you don't know how useful back seats are until you have a total lack of them. Second, I don't really like loud engines, stiff (er, sorry, responsive) pedals and steering, and having my ass two inches off the ground. But most importantly, I'm just too big for a sports car. I'm a few inches over six feet, and was driving with the steering wheel between my knees.

Of course, borrowing a car that costs over half of your annual household income also involves a slight amount of nervousness. When we stopped for dinner at a Carl's Jr. on I-5, I kept getting up to check on the car due to the extreme (and unforseen) seediness of the clientele. Fortunately, we only had one quasi-mishap during our Porsche week, on the very last day we had it.

Leaving the house of our friends in Santa Cruz, I noticed that one of the dashboard warning lights was on. It was a little green light, with a representation of a dial or gauge, and an arrow pointing at it. I had no clue what it meant.

Of course, whenever a light comes on on the dashboard, it could be trouble, so we rifled the car for the owner's manual. Sure, the light was green, which is usually not a countdown-to-car-death color, but the boxster didn't have an oil gauge, and I was a trifle worried that it meant we were low on oil. When you start the Boxster, you get a little computer-screen display of the oil level. Amusingly, this depends a great deal on the slope the car is parked on, so the value of this display is pretty minimal. During our week in the car, I'd seen the display at two of eight one day and eight of eight the following day. So I didn't put much stock in the value of that readout.

Annoyingly, the display goes away in favor of the odometer, etc, once the car is actually running. So it was a distinct if unlikely possibility that we needed oil. After some searching, we located the owner's manual behind the passenger seat behind some zip pouches at shoulder level. Another thing about sports cars is that they don't have good glove compartments.

It turned out to be the 'cruise control is on' light. I had bumped the cruise control lever, which is on the steering column, with my knee. I turned it off, and light went away. End of problem. We returned safely to my parents, with probably the same nebulous amount of oil we had started with.

I guess it was a valid light. You do need to know if the cruise control is on - lord knows you might hit the damn thing with your knee and not notice. And, because the car's German, it had to be a little pictogram rather than a light saying, for instance, 'cruise control on'. It was a fairly valid pictogram for 'cruise control on', I suppose, though it could have been 'eye falcon squiggle squiggle alligator' and been the same amount of use to me.

What it did serve to do was to pique my curiosity about less-than-useful dashboard instruments. So I did some research, to find out what well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful lights and dials have appeared behind various steering wheels. The results were often boggling. Here are some of my favorites:

School's In lightA little '25' speed limit sign shaped iconIlluminates during school hours-
AltimeterRolling meter showing altitude-Boeing had extra
Defroster needed lighta little cloudLights up if the windshield is too foggy to see through.-
Brake lightA red light on the dashIlluminates when the brakes are appliedInterfered with driver's vision, especially at night
Mickey D's proximity lighta little "golden arches" symbolBrightness is a direct function of the distance to the nearest McDonalds.McDonalds stopped paying to have these installed when they realized it was basically just a game of "hotter/colder"
Ides of March lighta little red hand holding a knifeLights up on March 15th, goes off again at midnight.Only college professors liked it
Rosetta lighteye falcon squiggle squiggle alligatorOil is low, and there is an alligator behind you.-

Fascinating, huh? I thought so. I understand they still have some of these lying around, so if you want one on your car, call your local auto-parts store and ask!

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra