Every car today contains a rechargeable 12-volt battery. This battery powers everything electrical: the engine's control computer, the ignition system, the radio, the headlights, etc. So the battery is vital to the car's operation.
Like all batteries, a car's 12-volt battery would eventually go dead if it were not recharged, so your car has a built-in recharging system. Most cars have an alternator, along with a voltage regulator, that keeps the battery charged and also provides electricity to the vehicle when the engine is running. A typical alternator can put out between 500 and 1,000 watts when necessary.
Because your car is so dependent on the battery, all cars have a battery light on the dashboard that is designed to warn you if the recharging system fails. A simple circuit looks at the voltage that the alternator is producing, and turns the battery light on if it is low. The battery light indicates a battery charging problem. If the battery light comes on and stays on while you are driving, the most common cause is a broken alternator belt. Total failure of the alternator is another possibility.
The reason why your car can operate normally even though the battery light is on is because your car can run off the energy stored in the battery. Your car will run fine until the battery goes dead. At that point, nothing in your car will work. When the battery light is on, you can still drive your car to the garage -- you will not damage anything. But you want to get to the garage before the battery fails and your car dies.
These links will help you learn more:
- How Batteries Work
- How Automobile Ignition Systems Work
- How Electric Cars Work
- How Hybrid Cars Work
- Why do batteries seem to go dead and then come back to life if you let them rest?
- What is the difference between a normal lead-acid car battery and a "deep cycle" battery?
- If daytime running lights were mandatory in the U.S., and all vehicles had them, how much extra gasoline would that use each year?
- MisterFixIt.com: Alternators - what are they, how do they work and what breaks?
- MisterFixIt.com: Now we all know why it is called an IDIOT LIGHT!
- FamilyCar.com: Understanding your dashboard gauges
- GM Goodwrench Videos