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Posted at 04:13 PM ET, 08/14/2011

Oil warning light: Time for a change?

The oil pressure warning light keeps coming on in our minivan, even though there’s plenty of oil and a new filter. What do you expect from an 11-year-old vehicle with close to 200,000 miles? It’s the sending unit, the mechanic says. He calls it a cheap fix at $300.

Cheap for him, maybe. Me, I’m going to accustom myself to watching the oil light burn.

Which got me thinking: Isn’t it time for automakers to design a new oil pressure warning light?

The one in my car looks like this:
(All icons: Marlon Correa - The Washington Post)

My younger daughter got her driver’s license six months ago. Has she or any other teenager ever seen an oil can like the one currently appearing daily on the dashboard of our Mazda MPV? It looks like something Dorothy would use to lubricate the Tin Man. Or something you’d rub in the hope of getting three wishes from a genie. Whatever association once existed between that particular antique container and the 30-weight keeping your engine from seizing up is long gone. I doubt such a can has been used since the days of Karl Benz.

But what pictograph instantly says “oil”? I asked The Post’s Marlon Correa to help me come up with some new icons.

What if we go right to the very beginning, with what had to die and decompose to create the crude in the first place. You know, something like this:

But would that be too confusing for today’s young drivers? Do they know that oil is the result of organic decomposition? Or would seeing that particular light just make them think, “Oh, ‘Jurassic Park’ must be on tonight”?

Maybe we should jump ahead a few million years and go with the classic gusher: an oil derrick spurting lovely black gold, Texas tea. Something like this:

Hmmm. But when we think of oil extraction today, we tend to think of the ocean, not the land. Deep sea platforms are where all the activity is, or at least all the controversy. So maybe something like this:

Or is that too busy, too hard to read as your pistons are fusing to the cylinder walls and your car is juddering to a halt?

Of course, if we’re being honest, you can’t talk about deep sea platforms without talking about oil spills, right? I mean, just look at last year’s BP Macondo disaster. One thing springs to mind when you think oil spill and that’s greasy birds:

Simple, classic. I suppose dumber drivers -- those who don’t understand the workings of the internal combustion engine -- might see that and think, “I better pull over. I’m low on pelicans.” But I’m confident most of us will realize we’re low on oil.

There is one drawback I can think of: Seeing an oil-covered pelican is depressing. It’s yucky. Maybe you could stick that image on the dash of a Hyundai or a Kia, but we live in an upmarket area. A pile of feathers bathed in Quaker State just will not fly with your Lexus or BMW driver. For your nicer cars, driven by your more affluent owners, manufacturers should probably go with something like this:

As long as people don’t think it’s a bottle of mustard. I’d hate for drivers to roll down their windows and ask the motorist next to them for Grey Poupon when the light comes on.

What do you think? What new icons should replace obsolete ones? It isn’t just the oil pressure light. I’m looking at my computer screen right now and it suggests I save my document by clocking on what appears to be a floppy disk. When’s the last time you shoved one of those in your PC? Or take fabric care labels. They look like alien petroglyphs. Surely you can do better.

Send me your suggestions.

By  |  04:13 PM ET, 08/14/2011

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