The Essentials
Essential Components of Your Car

Know Your Vehicle: The Essentials for The Driving Test in 2019

Updated Dec. 11, 2019

Climbing into the driver’s seat for the very first time can be an exciting yet somewhat overwhelming experience. In this unfamiliar environment, you will be surrounded by controls, dials, switches, levers, lights and symbols. How are you supposed to negotiate all these gadgets, drive the car and pay attention to the road at the same time?

To begin with, it will seem like an impossible task. Rest assured that every person who has ever learned to drive once felt as out of their depth behind the wheel as you do right now – it’s normal. Eventually, you will be able to control your vehicle as easily and effortlessly as you can control your body walking along the sidewalk. Remember, there was a time when you couldn’t walk either!

You can make your first few driving experiences a whole lot less stressful by learning as much as possible about the inner landscape of your vehicle, before you take it out on the road. If you know where to find and how to operate important controls, you can direct more energy towards essential driving tasks, like scanning the roadway and maneuvering the vehicle. As a result, you will feel far more relaxed and will be much safer.

The modules in this section will help you learn about your vehicle’s most important features. The truth is that getting to grips with everything will not take long, as vehicle controls, indicators and devices are designed to be intuitive. Every time you are forced to take your attention away from the road, you run this risk of missing important information and getting into an accident or collision. Automotive safety experts design modern passenger cars to be easy to operate, to minimize this risk. Of course, intuitive controls only reduce risk if you know how to use them.

Owner’s manual

No two makes or models of car use precisely the same controls and dashboard symbols, though rarely are one vehicle’s features radically different from another’s. Once you know your way around one car and understand what all the different controls do, it will be substantially easier to do it again in a new vehicle.

While the information in this module will help you, you will also need a copy of your vehicle owner’s manual. This handbook will explain every light and gauge on the dashboard and every control around the steering column. It will also talk you through:

  • Pre- and post-trip procedures
  • Vehicle maintenance tips
  • The vehicle’s handling capabilities
  • The location of important features (e.g. the engine oil dipstick)
  • The specification of parts and materials used in the vehicle
  • Advanced safety features

Your owner’s manual is an invaluable resource when it comes to learning how to operate your car. Make a point of reading this manual thoroughly and keeping it in your glove compartment, just in case you need to refer to it in future. If you want to look something up in the manual while you’re out driving, find a safe place to pull over and park the vehicle first.

Important external features

When getting to know your new car, it is important to learn about external features, as well as internal controls. This is the topic of the first module following this introduction. In this section, you will be taught to identify the vehicle’s headlights, turn signal lights, taillights and brake lights. Having an awareness of the position of your lights while driving will help you communicate effectively with other road users.

Other external features you need to be familiar with include the:

  • Fuel tank door
  • License plate(s)
  • Exhaust
  • Side-view mirrors
  • Windshield
  • Windshield wipers
  • Tires & hub caps

Understanding how these features are designed to operate will help you keep the vehicle in sound working order throughout its life. You also have certain legal obligations to clean and maintain the outside of your car, which are discussed in this module.

Internal vehicle features

Before we dive right in and introduce you to the vehicle’s engine and controls, let’s check out some other important internal features. Everything inside your vehicle has been designed with convenience, comfort and safety in mind. Anything you will need to access while driving can be found within easy reach of the driver’s seat, this includes the gear selector, steering column, instrument panel, pedals, parking brake, stereo, air con and navigation systems. The module will discuss the function of each of these features and tell you where to look for them. Of course, you will also need to check your vehicle owner’s manual.

Prior to learning to drive, take the time to explore the inside of your vehicle and find out where everything is. This will ultimately leave you feeling far more at home and relaxed, when you do climb into the driver’s seat.

Underneath the hood

Don’t worry, you do not need to study mechanics to become a safe and competent driver. However, you do need to know roughly where all the engine’s most important components can be found. Ultimately, there will come a time when you need to change your oil, top up your radiator coolant or perform some other menial maintenance task. Just about anybody can do these things with the help of their owner’s manual, so you will not have to spend money on a professional mechanic.

We will not be delving into the finer details of auto-maintenance here – that’s a job for later! This module is simply a rough guide to your engine compartment, to help you identify these key features:

  • Motor oil cap & oil dipstick
  • Radiator cap & coolant reservoir
  • Battery
  • Air filter
  • Windshield wiper fluid reservoir

As confusing as the engine compartment may seem at first glance, you should easily be able to locate these important components with our guidance and your vehicle handbook. So, go ahead and pop the hood!

The instrument panel

Next up, we’re back in the driver’s seat to get acquainted with one of the most important internal features of your car: the instrument panel. Everything you need to know about the current condition and status of your vehicle can be found here. The gauges, dials and lights on the screen behind your steering column can be confusing to the untrained eye but with the help of your owner’s manual, you will soon be able to read them.
Much of the information on the instrument panel will be useful while you’re driving, to help you determine how and when to alter your driving behavior. For example:

  1. 1

    The speedometer.
    The speedometer will tell you how fast you are traveling, so that you may adjust your speed to suit the speed limit and current driving conditions.

  2. 2

    The tachometer.
    The tachometer shows the engine’s RPM (revolutions per minute) and can help you decide when to change up or down a gear.

  3. 3

    The fuel gauge.
    The fuel gauge tells you how much gas is left in the fuel tank, allowing you to plan gas station visits before the levels get too low.

Most instrument panels also feature indicator lights which inform you when important systems are active or inactive. For instance:

  1. 1

    Seat belt.
    The seat belt symbol lights up when somebody in the car has neglected to buckle their seat belt.

  2. 2

    Cruise control.
    The cruise control light remains on while the cruise control system is active, warning you that you will need to disengage the system in order to adjust your speed.

  3. 3

    Turn indicators.
    Flashing turn signal lights will appear on the instrument panel whenever the corresponding turn signal is on, so you cannot forget to deactivate it.

Modern vehicles are built with sophisticated computer systems that can sense when an important system or feature is not working as it should. The computer then relays this information to the driver via an instrument panel warning light. This means the driver can take action to fix the issue, before it becomes an expensive or life-threatening problem. Never ignore a warning light on your instrument panel – especially if it is red. We will talk you through some of the more common warning lights here, including the “check engine” light, the battery warning light and the low tire pressure indicator.

Steering column controls

The most obvious and frequently used vehicle controls are the pedals, the steering wheel and the gear shift stick. Besides these, you will need to know where to find the windshield wiper controls, headlights, turn signals, horn and of course, the ignition!

In most newer cars, all these important controls are positioned on or around the steering column, making them easy for the driver to reach without removing their hand from the wheel for too long. As you become accustomed to using steering column controls, you will likely find you can operate most of them with your fingers, while your thumb and palm stay in contact with the wheel.

While all makes and models of vehicle are designed with different steering column controls, most feature a multi-directional level on either side of the steering wheel. Moving theses levers forwards, backwards, up or down usually activates the lights or windshield wipers. Make sure you figure out which is which before taking your car out on the road!

Controlling your engine

Developing a basic understanding of how the engine powers the vehicle’s wheels will help you become a proficient driver. In the final module of this block, we discuss the essential controls you will use to wield the power produced in your car’s engine. These are:

  1. 1

    Accelerator.
    The accelerator pedal - tells the engine to burn more fuel, thus increasing speed.

  2. 2

    The brakes.
    The brake pedal - applies brakes to the vehicle’s wheels, thus decreasing speed.

  3. 3

    Parking brake.
    The parking brake - applies brakes to the rear-wheels only, decreasing speed or fixing a parked vehicle in place.

  4. 4

    The clutch.
    The clutch pedal (In manual transmission vehicles) – disconnects engine power from the wheels.

  5. 5

    The stick.
    The gear stick – changes gears up or down to manage the amount of power transferred from the engine to the wheels. Used to improve traction, increase speed or maximize fuel economy.

If you have an automatic transmission vehicle, much of the “power management” will be done for you. Even though you will not have to change gears yourself, it is useful to know how the car’s gears work. Plus, many automatic vehicles have settings that allow the driver to take some control over the gears and transmission. If you have these options on your automatic gear selector, this module will teach you how to use them.

Getting started

Now, its time for you and your car to get acquainted. Do you have your vehicle owner’s manual ready? If you do not have one, you may be able to order a new copy from the vehicle manufacturer. Do not worry if you don’t have your own car just yet, you can still work through this module. Learning about essential vehicle features will help you to make an informed decision when the time comes to choose a car! Let’s begin, with a detailed look at external vehicle features.

 

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Mechanical Failures

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Dashboard Warning Lights

Every driver experiences a mechanical failure at some time or another, even when their vehicle is new and well-maintained. Fortunately, most modern vehicles are built with a warning system which indicates when an important component has malfunctioned or is at risk of failing. If this happens, a warning light will usually be triggered on the dashboard to tell the driver that some action is required.

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Seat Belts

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Child Restraints

In all states, the driver of a passenger vehicle is legally responsible for making sure that all children beneath a certain age are safely secured in an appropriate restraint. The penalties incurred for failing to properly restrain a child passenger are different in every state. Most states issue a fine of up to $100 for first offenses. For repeat offenders, this may increase to $1,000 or more.

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Air Bags

During moderate to severe collisions, airbags will rapidly deploy and inflate, to cushion your body and reduce the severity of the impact. Airbag technology has advanced considerably since the safety feature was first introduced in the 1960s. Every year, airbags save thousands of lives.

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The Correct Sitting Position

The importance of sitting correctly while driving cannot be overstated. Maintaining a proper sitting position will afford you maximum control over the vehicle and will minimize the chance of being injured or killed during a collision.

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Safety Engineering

While visual appeal is a key driving force behind a car’s design, modern vehicle manufacturers place far more emphasis on engineering for safety to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities. Looking at your average modern car, it is difficult to grasp just how much thought, time and money has been spent making it as safe as possible for the driver and passengers that will occupy it.

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Driver Assistance Systems

In an effort to reduce the number of traffic fatalities and serious injuries caused by driver-error, car manufacturers are developing and implementing computerized driver assistance systems, which take some vehicle-control and hazard-perception responsibilities away from the driver. Fewer responsibilities mean fewer opportunities for driver-error and in theory, fewer collisions.