At least a dozen years before the Feds went on a safety binge in 1966, the auto industry took a major step to keep drivers'' eyes on the road. Critics and purists called this bold advance in 1953 “idiot lights.” They were and are red alerts on the instrument panel to warn that there''s trouble brewing under the hood.

“The lights simply were a better way to attract attention, as drivers didn''t pay attention to gauges,” says Vann H. Wilber, vehicle safety director for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. George Moon, retired director of interior design for General Motors Corp. concurs, but adds, “they also were a lot cheaper than gauges.”

Tom Carr, Alliance research program manager, also contends the red warning lights are considerably more reliable and less complicated than gauges. The lights also take up far less space on an already crowded instrument panel.

Gauges still are prominent on trucks of all sizes, commercial and private. And sports car buyers favor gauges so much so that an especially loud howl came up from Corvette owners when the red warning lights first appeared.

“We went to a Japanese-created liquid crystal design that replaced gauges with a series of bars that lit up and down by the power of a sensor,” GM''s Moon recalls. “We filled the sports car with the largest liquid crystal displays ever used in an automobile. We caught hell for it.”

Like many other recent innovations, the Japanese are given credit for expanding the warning lights. “We first called them ‘Tokyo At Night’ because they looked so bright and colorful,” says Moon. “And there were a lot of them just like all that neon in Tokyo. In the 1960s, the Japanese adopted the new technology of liquid crystal or light emitting diodes among ways of providing alerts. A lot of that technology came from the high fidelity audio industry. The Japanese not only went with speedometer numbers that flashed in front of you but fuel capacities with moving scales. We did all of that, too, because it was the rage.”

“We now have low tire pressure lights on most of our cars,” reports Thomas W. Creech, engineering group manager for displays and controls at GM.

GM is now in its third year of a $35 million joint research program with the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. The effort is a combination of a forward collision warning system and adaptive cruise control. Both systems work independently of the driver. The collision program detects and assesses perils in the path of the vehicle and will use audible tones plus visual displays to alert the driver. GM says “this research underscores our belief that the best crash protection we can provide is to help avoid the collision altogether.”

Meanwhile, the rush to insert more instrument panel alerts continues. GM, on its new Buick Rendezvous and other vehicles, added a display with 25 messages in one central location. “We call the warnings ‘tell-tales’ instead of ‘idiot lights,’” Creech notes. The “tell-tale” information center list ranges from an inoperative park lamp to low tire pressure to a thirsty windshield washer fluid container.

Among the latest warning devices are alerts to objects behind your vehicle when in reverse. “It''s an ultrasonic parking aid,” GM''s Creech explains. There are four sensors on the rear of the vehicle and three threshold distances. The first warning is one light and one chime; the second, two lights and two chimes as you are nearer; the third is red and three chimes, “which definitely get a driver''s attention.” The red alerts for backups can be seen on the rear view mirror.

The use of red alerts goes back as early as 1912 when the Boyce Moto-Meter, a radiator hood ornament, provided visual notice of a need for water to cool the engine. Directional signals — not red but green — made their debut on the 1938 Buick. Instrument panel gauges that displayed the contents of the gasoline tank did not arrive until the 1920s. In those earlier days, a station attendant would measure the tank contents with a yardstick-type ruler with markings for gallons, rather than inches.

During the 1990s designers adapted fiber optics to illuminate little lights on the front fender to flash in time with the directional signals and to indicate if high or low beam headlights were on. Fiber optics now are history. GM''s Moon says they also had a bulb on the instrument panel that indicated the tail lamps were working when in reverse gear.

The Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI, owns a 1906 Locomobile race car. Bob Casey, the curator of transportation, says the driver''s panel has a little glass tube adjusted for dropping oil at proper and frequent intervals on the engine. “Actually, the technology came from steam-powered automobiles and was in use through the First World War,” he says.

A short-lived warning scheme arrived suddenly and departed just as quickly in the 1980s. It was the human voice command telling the driver to fasten seat belts or advising that a car door was ajar. A year after its debut, a Chrysler Corp. engineer at a press preview was asked about the future of the voice. His response: “We shot the son of a bitch.”

GM''s Moon recalls that Chairman Roger Smith and Design Vice President Irv Rybicki both were in favor of voice advisories. “But they didn''t last very long,” he says. “Drove people crazy.”

Today, upscale cars from Infiniti and Jaguar use a voice command, but it''s the driver doing the talking. Voice commands control audio volume and radio station selection, adjust the climate control or dial a cell phone.

Although “idiot lights” were not a government concept or a law, the companies do have to consider federal requirements in all countries. Canada, for example, requires symbols because of its bilingual population.

GM''s Moon has a thought about gaining instrument panel space. He would go a step further and eliminate the tachometer on all automobiles except those with a manual transmission. “It''s usually big and on many vehicles, but I doubt if most passenger car owners pay any attention. Do they really care about the speed of the engine?” he wonders.