Transmission light

Transmission Light – What It Means And The Signs Of Possible Failure

Like most drivers, many of us are only familiar with the check engine light. But what you may not be aware of is that vehicles also have a transmission light that illuminates to notify you of a problem with the transmission.

Unfortunately, not all vehicles have this distinct part. Older cars, especially, lacked one of these. In fact, if you had a serious transmission problem, it would pop out at your rock bottom or when you least expected it. If your car transmission overheated while on a road trip, you’d simply heed because it died on you. Nowadays, most vehicles contain an automatic transmission light as an advanced warning system. However, they are very costly to replace, so it’s worth the effort to keep them in good condition.

What Does The Transmission Light Mean For Your Vehicle?

There could be various possibilities behind your transmission light appearance. If you notice the transmission light on your dashboard, it means there could be an issue with your vehicle’s automatic transmission or other associated elements.

Some vehicles turn on this warning light when the transmission is seemingly overheating or if there’s an issue with the overdrive or traction control light. Others use it as a general indicator of a wide range of transmission-related problems.

It’s also worth noting that for other models and makes of vehicles, the transmission light doesn’t always warn of a problem; it may be an alert for maintenance. For instance, it could mean a low transmission fluid, which ought to be checked every 30,000 to 60,000 miles or so. In that case, call your nearest dealer or check your owner’s manual to be sure what to be on the lookout for.

How Does The Transmission Light Look Like?

Not all vehicles use a similar transmission light to warn you of an issue with your transmission. There’s a unique warning light in every vehicle depending on your car’s year, make, and model.

It’s possible that, in case of a transmission problem, a different light may cover up this area. It could be an overdrive warning (for more insight, check out our guide on the meaning of O/D off), a service engine light, or a traction control light. Again, it can be an uphill task to ascertain what the light means unless you consult your owner’s manual. It should tell you the type of warning to be watchful for in case of a problem.

If your transmission light appeared because of a transmission problem, there might be a number of symptoms you can look at to confirm an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed promptly.

Signs And Symptoms Of A Failing Transmission

Transmission problems may manifest in various ways and have an uncanny way of escalating pretty fast. Sometimes, the issue is cheaply fixed, but if left unchecked, you may find yourself having to purchase an entire transmission overhaul, which can be very costly compared to the cost of repair.

Therefore, it’s worth being aware of some early signs of a possible transmission failure so you can consider heading to a mechanic to get the problem fixed. Here are the most common symptoms of a failing transmission.

1) Burning Smell

While burning smell is a common type of phantosmia, it should be a cause for concern when it comes from your engine. If you notice a burning smell, it’s a clear indicator that something isn’t right.

A burning smell results from a contaminated fluid or fluid that has become old that it can hardly perform its task properly. It, therefore, overheats and starts burning, making your engine very hot. This, in turn, leads to premature wear, corrosion, and excess debris.

2) Noises In Neutral

Your car shouldn’t make any noise when in neutral. But if you rapidly hear a clunking, humming, or whining noise beneath your vehicle that’s unusual, you may have a transmission problem. Even though it may be a minor issue, it could indicate something worse.

Transmission light symptoms and causes of why it appears

These noises could be a result of a breakdown in your transmission fluid or other mechanical issues. The transmission fluid has the hefty task of ensuring the mechanical gears and elements are lubricated. However, with frequent use and time, the fluid’s lubricating ability weakens and fails to stop friction, damaging the transmission system, which is quite expensive and inconvenient.

If you hear a clunking noise and suspect it’s coming from your transmission, the transmission already has an internal part breaking down. If so, it’s prudent to have a professional transmission mechanic examine it right away.

3) Leaking Fluid

Have you ever experienced a possibly dirty dark red or a bright red fluid along your garage floor or driveway? That’s likely transmission fluid.

Since transmission fluids are never meant to leak, this may lead to a severe or complete breakdown of the transmission, which is inconvenient and expensive.

Unlike motor oil which expires over time, transmission fluid doesn’t usually reduce too quickly due to mileage and time. Therefore, if you find that you’re short of transmission fluid, it means there’s a leak somewhere. Less fluid can lead to greater friction in your transmission, which will crash essential components inside and ultimately lead to a transmission breakdown.

Although a leak is often a low-cost service (entails replacing a hose or leaking gasket), don’t ignore it. Remember, neglecting a small transmission problem could lead to a much bigger and serious problem.

4) Slipping Gears

If your car slips out gears, that’s a serious safety problem. It’s even terrifying when it happens while you’re out driving and need to give it the gas to avoid a crisis.

Gear slipping is usually caused by worn transmission bands and low fluids. If your vehicle’s transmission happens to slip in and out of gears, make sure to have it checked by a mechanic.

5) Shaking Or Grinding During Gear Shifts

A vehicle’s transmission operates effortlessly when shifting gears. You shouldn’t feel shaking or grinding sensations while switching gears. Grinding or shaking sensations while shifting gears indicate a faulty transmission.

While these symptoms may seem trivial, it’s best to pay attention to your transmission immediately as they arise because it can probably worsen with time and use. If you come across such sensations while shifting gears, be sure to take your car to a transmission specialist soon.

6) Car Won’t Respond When In Gear

A functional gear will slide into the right gear, and the car will respond promptly to the changes. If your vehicle is hesitant to respond when you place it into reverse or drive, it means something’s wrong, and it’s usually the transmission. It might indicate an issue with your fluid whose protective properties have worn out and has become thick. Here, a fluid exchange would help.

Sometimes, your vehicle may be having a computer system problem. In that case, resetting the vehicle’s computer can help resolve the issue as well. Simply disconnect the battery for about 30 minutes for it to reset.

In a manual vehicle, this delay in shift is often accompanied by a surge in revolutions per minute (RPM) as well as engine noise that differs from your car speed. The only way to be aware of the underlying issue is to take it for service.

7) Check Engine Light Is On

The check engine light illuminates to alert you of any upcoming or existing problems in your car. However, the light may also indicate an issue from diverse systems in your vehicle, not just the transmission. And even though you should get your car checked when the engine light shows, many drivers opt to ignore it and continue driving with it on.

One way to ascertain why the engine light illuminates without visiting a mechanic is by investing in your own OBD2 Scanner. It’s a diagnostic tool used by mechanics to diagnose the warning lights that show up on your dashboard. When you plug this tool in your vehicle, it’s able to give a readout that indicates the nature of the problem that caused the light to illuminate, hence directing you to the specific part causing the problem, which in this case means the transmission.

It’s also important to note that the OBD2 scanner doesn’t fix the problem, but only informs you if what you’re dealing with is transmission, catalytic converter, the alternator, or other issues that may arise beneath your hood. This way, you can assess how rapidly you need to visit the mechanic and fix the problem.

For a profound insight into the symptoms of a failing transmission check the following video

What If You Come Across A Blinking Transmission Light?

When everything’s okay with your car and the transmission light is off, then you have nothing to worry about. When the transmission light appears, that’s a sign you may have a transmission problem, and you ought to take it to the mechanic to be fixed.

However, there are other instances where you may come across a blinking transmission light, which can be extremely perplexing because that’s not a regular kind of warning.

If your transmission light is flashing on and off, it’s often linked to an overheating problem with your transmission. This may happen for various reasons, but it’s mainly due to low transmission fluid. It’s thus unable to keep your transmission functioning at the right temperature. And for that reason, it starts to overheat.

Common Causes Of The Appearance Of A Transmission Light

Unfortunately, there is no versatile cause of illuminated transmission light. Some of the most common causes of the light include:

Low Fluid Level

A low fluid level may cause various transmission performance problems, which can lead to internal damage. If your transmission happens to have insufficient fluid, the system will identify the unusual vehicle operation and turn on the transmission light.

Torque Converter Issues

Most transmission designs have a torque converter which acts as a fluid connecting device between the transmission and the engine. A lockup clutch in the converter offers a mechanical connection between the transmission and the engine under certain conditions.

With time, the converter may start causing problems, such as slippage and shuddering. On other occasions, a lousy converter may even split and contaminate the transmission with debris. Such issues may cause the transmission light to turn on.

Shift Interlock Issues

The illumination of a transmission light doesn’t necessarily imply there’s an issue with the transmission itself. For instance, in some BMWs, the light may show up when your car has an issue with the shift interlock system- a feature that stops a driver from shifting a gear selector out of ‘park’ without depressing the pedal.

Internal Transmission Failure

Automatic transmissions are intricate features with numerous internal constituents, including planetary gear sets, clutch packs, etc. Suppose one or a number of those constituents fail, the system will notice the unusual vehicle operation and, as a result, turn on the warning light.

Transmission gearbox Ford 10-speed cutaway diagram

Transmission Overheating

Transmission overheating is considered one of the most common causes of illuminated transmission light. The primary cause of overheating might be anything ranging from an internal transmission problem to an obstructed transmission cooler (for more insight, check out our transmission cooler line diagram and the Ford F-150 transmission cooler line replacement). Other driving habits like towing an extremely heavy load might as well cause the transmission to overheat.

Problems With Computer And Electronics Control

Like any other part of a modern car, the transmission contains a control module that obtains its information from other sensors.  It communicates with other modules over a data network.

Data network, module, and sensor issues may cause various problems that would turn on the transmission light. Other problems as well, such as a faulty shift solenoid and damaged wiring can possibly turn on the transmission light.

Driving With The Transmission Warning Light On

If your car’s transmission light appeared to warn you of a possible problem with your transmission temperature associated with low fluid levels, driving in this state isn’t a good idea.

Even though you can continue driving like this for a while, it’s important to note that the longer you continue driving with the transmission light on, the worse the problem gets. Perhaps the temperature will continue rising as you continue to either run contaminated fluid or leak fluid in your transmission, which will eventually damage the transmission.

What Should You Do When The Transmission Light Turns On?

The transmission is one of the most expensive car parts to replace, and it can occasionally be rescued if you act promptly and get the necessary repairs done.

If your transmission light illuminates, the best thing to do is to stop driving immediately. After doing so, find a secure place to stop the vehicle and let it rest until the transmission cools down. Afterward, you may attempt to start the car and continue driving. However, make sure to drive carefully at this point.

Your main aim should be to get the car to a mechanic and nothing more. If the light shows up again, stop again and allow it to cool once more. And if you’re miles away from a mechanic or the nearest town, you may need to request a tow at this juncture.

Ways To Keep Your Transmission Up And Running

Depending on the type of vehicle and age, transmission repairs can be costly. Sometimes it’s inevitable to evade having a transmission specialist service your car, especially when you’re subjected to a total breakdown.

However, there are measures you can take to avoid transmission failure and ensure a long, efficient life for your vehicle. Here’s a checklist of the top maintenance tips for your transmission.

1) Check Your Transmission Fluid Regularly

In cars like light trucks and SUVs, the transmission fluid ought to be checked regularly together with the oil. A decrease in the transmission fluid can result from leakage. In that case, refilling it will be the best choice to prevent damages to your transmission.

Check the fluid level once again after 4 days. If the level is back low again, drive to the nearest auto repair center for repair since something is definitely wrong with your transmission at this point. Usually, the fluid is bright red with a nice smell. If you find it dark in color with a rotten smell to it, just know that a whole fluid replacement could be the ultimate solution.

2) Service Your Cooling System Regularly

Your car’s cooling system plays a significant role in the health of your engine and transmission. And more often, people think it only prevents the engine from getting too hot.

Transmission light

However, the car cooling system also helps cool your vehicle’s transmission fluid to ensure it’s at an ideal temperature when it’s still or shifting through gears. To ensure your transmission and engine don’t overheat, it’s prudent to get your cooling system serviced regularly.

3) Use The Right Transmission Fluid

Most car owners cause havoc to their vehicles because they’ve replaced their transmission fluid with an improper fluid.

Always consult your owner’s manual for the correct information regarding the suitable transmission fluid for your car. If your car uses an incompatible kind of fluid, make sure to have the transmission fluid flushed and have it replaced with the right kind.

4) Have Your Transmission Flushed Out Regularly

According to experts, changing of transmission fluid should be carried out every once a year. However, always make sure to consult your owner’s manual before making any assumptions. How long your vehicle’s transmission fluid will last depends on how often you drive it as well as its operating temperature.

A professional fluid exchange or transmission flush helps to ensure that no old fluid remains in your oil cooler lines or the torque converter. Besides, it’s also a great way to do away with any grime or gunk that may be trapped in your transmission.

The process entails specialized equipment so as to entirely remove the old fluid and replace it with new, fresh fluid. Understand that draining the transmission pan alone will only change about 40% of your transmission fluid.

5) Avoid Towing

Hauling hefty loads with a car that wasn’t meant to tow puts extreme pressure on your vehicle. Suppose you choose to act as the stand-in for a tow truck, especially during harsh weather conditions.

In that case, your transmission fluid may overheat and lose its lubricating properties, hence damaging the transmission. If necessary, rent a car or leave the towing to the experts.

6) Warm Up Your Car Before Driving

In as much as you’re eager to reach your destination as quickly, it’s always important to be patient before driving.

Commencing your journey before taking a minute or so for your car to warm up puts undue pressure on your car’s transmission and engine. Waiting for a short while before steering out your driveway will help warm up the fluid and make sure everything is lubricated and working as required.

7) Don’t Overuse Your Spare Tire

A spare tire is extremely helpful, but if overused, it puts unnecessary strain on your transmission, resulting in its damage.  Besides, small or mismatched tire sizes also damage other parts of your car, such as the wheel alignment.

8) Don’t Shift Gears While The Vehicle Is Moving

One of the most effective and easiest ways to care for your transmission is to make sure that you always bring your car to a halt before you switch from reverse to drive or before shifting into park. Failure to do so will put excessive strain on your vehicle’s transmission and thus damaging it in the long run.

While these tips will help you take good care of your vehicle’s transmission, it’s still advisable that you hang on to a professional mechanic or repair shop on matters of repair, maintenance, and other types of servicing of your transmission.

Transmission Light Facts

  1. A lit transmission warning light is an indication of car trouble, especially if there is a low fluid level or gearbox issues.
  2. The appearance of the transmission warning light may vary, with a gearwheel encircling a thermometer or an exclamation point being common.
  3. Transmission overheating is the most common reason for a transmission light to come on, caused by low fluid, a blocked cooler, or an internal transmission issue.
  4. A low transmission fluid level can lead to problems with the transmission, and a low automatic transmission fluid level can indicate a transmission fluid leak.
  5. An internal transmission failure can cause the powertrain control module to read it as a transmission failure and turn on the transmission warning light.
  6. The valve body, which controls all sensors and electronics in a transmission system, can cause transmission light problems if there are any issues.
  7. A lit transmission warning light can also be a reminder to check fluid levels or replace bad transmission fluid, as regular maintenance is crucial.
  8. Continuing to drive with a lit transmission warning light is not advisable, as the issues can be severe and lead to further damage.
  9. Diagnosing the issue of the transmission warning light can be done by stopping driving, scanning for trouble codes, or consulting a professional mechanic.

Transmission Light: Conclusion

When your transmission begins to fail, it doesn’t give you plenty of time to react. But if the transmission light shows up, that’s a red flag. This isn’t the type of thing you can brush aside and worry about it some other time. If it’s a problem right now, you’ll have to deal with it immediately.

The longer you let it transpire, the more likely you are to suffer a more severe and costly failure to your transmission system. You never want to head on that road and end up with huge repair bills and lots of headaches.

When your transmission light appears, head on to a mechanic and get the problem diagnosed and repaired.

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1 Comment

  • Theresa washburn Says

    thank you for takeing my information.I have a mazda 3 car its been a good car.I had to get a sensor put in because the at light came on .the car was good for a few days than it came on than went off than the check enjine came on.could this be in the wireing or something else .the mechanic said it could be a wire but cant get it looked at until his wwek.thank you and can you give me some advice.

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