Home » Speedometers Are All Wrong And Stupid But I Can Fix Them

Speedometers Are All Wrong And Stupid But I Can Fix Them

Speedometer Ts2
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“Just take anything in this row” says the Enterprise car rental rep as she hands me the tablet to initial for things I never read and likely am getting ripped off for because it’s “Work” money and I don’t care.

I’ve been up since 4AM to catch the flight here and just want to get to my meetings hassle-free, so I just pick the biggest car in the line with a Toyota logo on it. Rolling over the tire spikes, I head onto the access roads of Charlotte International Airport and I immediately get hit by the digital SLOW DOWN speed sign off to the side. I don’t want to be late for a client due to getting busted, so I look down to see how far over the limit I’m going.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

There’s a digital readout dead center but I instinctively glance at the analog gauge, as many of you might do. Staring me in the face is this:

Camry Speed 2 5 24a

 

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I’d have to look it up, but considering the relative lack of oomf and noise the white Camry I’m in seems to have the “standard” motor under the hood. Almost certainly the 160 miles an hour maximum shown would only be accessible with JATO units strapped to the roof. Honestly, the entire last quarter of the gauge would be essentially useless even if I were on the salt flats, which I am decidedly not. I think I topped out at around 80 on Charlotte freeways with the fastest traffic.

I’m not picking on Toyota. Many, many manufacturers do this, and it’s especially frustrating on cars with graphic digital displays. My old station wagon did this, and getting into my new-to-me-but-quite-used current SUV wagon upon returning to the airport parking lot in Chicago I see another nearly useless speedometer readout:

Cayenne Speedo 2 24 B

 

This one is particularly inexcusable since it doesn’t even have a physical pointer. Hell, this is a graphic display that can show ANYTHING, as it does showing mileage when the car is first started. Like this:

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Cayenee 2 4 B

 

Again, like in the Toyota rental, in my car there’s a numeric digital display (and a heads up on the windshield thanks to the individual that ordered it new) so this gauge isn’t critical, but if it’s illegible why even have it? Besides, even if the top speed was that figure (it’s apparently over twenty MPH less than that) it’s a fucking grey hybrid family SUV and I’m usually driving on side roads where sixty is impossible to achieve and reckless driving if you could. What is the reason for this madness, and how can we fix it?

Why Would A Car Lie?

Perception is reality in many people’s minds. Car companies certainly have known that for years, and they continue to play it up.

Back in the era when Whitesnake was topping the charts, people squished into the back “seat” of our rusty 280Z 2+2 would look at the speedometer and be quite impressed at the 160MPH figure at the far end of the scale. “Damn, look at that”, some would say, “this thing’s FAST, son!” It almost didn’t matter when I told them that the top speed was really about forty miles an hour less than that (even back when the car didn’t have rust holes and 150,000 on the clock like ours did by then). They didn’t care. The speedometer on their newer 4Runner topped out at 110, so based on their reasoning this old Datsun Z car was a low- slung green sports machine so it HAD to be much faster than a pickup truck SUV, right?

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4run Z Speedo 2
Barn Finds, Motorcar Studio, ebay

This was obviously a mind trick. Speed maximums on speedometers have always seemed to be just wishful thinking marketing ploys by car manufacturers. It was an ever-escalation war, and we should just be happy they didn’t start sticking two or three hundred mile an hour gauges in our cars.

Of course, the automakers have so-called “reasoning” for this overabundance of numbers according at a CNN article from a little while back:

Toyota spokesman Paul Hogard said the automaker wants speedometers to be easy to read, so there’s value in placing the typical operating speed of American cars, 45 mph to 70 mph, he said, at the top of the speedometer, which is the easiest place on the speedometer for the driver to read. To do this – while maintaining a visually-appealing, symmetrical speedometer – requires a gauge that displays well past operating speeds, he said.

A person on my team with a masters degree in UI said that, in scientific terms, this excuse could be described as “pure, unadulterated bullshit.” She might be wrong, but I know for a fact that “visually appealing” and “symmetrical” gauges are less important to me than my ability to read the numbers easily. That Camry has 100MPH dead top center which is hardly a “typical operation speed” for a refrigerator-white urban-based rental car.

You might remember a several year period in the early eighties where American cars were required to have speedometers that maxed out at 85 MPH (and have a highlighted “55”). This was supposedly a ploy by the Carter administration NHTSA to keep people driving slower; the government thought “why give them the incentive to go at higher speeds than the limit?”

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While these gauges looked ridiculous in Porsches and Ferraris of the era, super-regulated speedometers were really nice to have in most Malaise era cars. Seriously, why would I want a 120MPH speedometer when our smog-equipment-strangled 1980 Volvo 245DL or 1983 Mercury Grand Marquis wagon could barely exceed 85 anyway? Look at these units out of those cars. Even the rococo black-on-chrome grandfather clock shit on the Grand-Ma-Marquis was clear and easy to read, daytime or at night when the Mercury gauge was bathed in an odd algae-on-the-moon glow.

Malaise
ebay, ebay

 

Is there a compromise? One where you could, in fact, show the potential speed of a car within reason but still be more useable to drivers ninety nine percent of the time?

Solutions From The Dark Days

As I often point out, there are many solutions to automotive problems which were solved years ago; we’ve just forgotten about them.

For the mechanical, analog speedometer on that Camry, we can go back to the dark days of Malaise to find a fix in Ford’s attempted Euro-style sports coupe, the Fox Mustang SVO. Saddled with that 85 MPH limitation on the speedometer, Ford followed the rule of the day and indeed offered no digits beyond that speed. However, the rules apparently didn’t say that the speedometer had to STOP at 85, did it? Notice the dots below that continue on the arc of the speedometer past 85? Pretty sneaky, Ford.

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Svo
Ford, Classic Cars. com

That Camry (and similar cars) could do the same thing. Note that there’s plenty of room for extra markings under the gas gauge (sort of like the kilometers markings on American speedometers) for when the car would exceed the speed marked with large numbers. Here’s that original one from my rental again:

Camry Speed 2 5 24a

Now let’s make the modifications (crudely in Photoshop):

24a

The needle would likely have to wrap around a second time (sort of like standing on an analog scale after the holidays) to get to 160MPH, but guess what? THE CAR CAN’T GO THAT FAST ANYWAY.

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Camry New Speedometer 2 5

My Camry rental had a digital numeric display as well dead center in the instrument cluster, and that readout could continue even after the needle went above (or even stopped at) 85MPH; the early Corvette C4 did that rather successfully:

Corvette Speedo 2 24 4
ebay

 

Graphic LCD displays are, of course, much easier to provide different options. Let’s look at the graphic gauge example from my car again:

Cayenne Speedo 2 24 B

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Could there not be two scales, where one is used in the city and one on the highway? Cars like Citroens and Mercedes offered “dual tone” horns at one point where you had a super-loud honker for the wide-open spaces and a rather more civilized one for in town. Gauges can do that, too; this is not unlike old Datsun fuel gauges like the ones on the gadget-laden 280ZX with a second, finer gauge that kicks in at a quarter of a tank.

Fuel Gauge Nissan 2 3 24 4
ebay, Nissan via Jason Torchinsky

 

Here is the “city” speedometer format for my own car (I know, it’s pretty steep for “city” but just go with it since it’s better than 175 MPH):

Cayenne Speedo 2 24 G

 

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..and now here is the “autobahn” scale:

Cayenne Speedo 2 24 D

The switch between the two could be manual through a menu, physical button, or even automatic based upon the fact that the car knows via GPS if you’re, say, cruising down The Strip in Vegas or actually on Highway 15 running through on the way to Salt Lake City. Alternatively, the scale for the “city” version could just continue around the circle, turning off the odometer until you slow down below 85.

Also, remember that there’s a digital numeric readout anyway to keep going if you exceed the speed on the gauge. Makes sense, right?

Lose The Madness Or Lose The Gauge

Seriously, these things are getting silly.

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Nobody is impressed with the maximum speed shown on a gauge. Nobody wants to use a magnifying glass to see if they’re speeding in a school zone. Most cars have digital speed readouts anyways, so if the analog (or analog-looking) speedometer is borderline illegible I’d rather car manufacturers just ditch the whole gauge and give us something more useful in the space instead like a giant clock, a countdown timer to Valentine’s Day (ouch!) or even a depreciation gauge. It’s about time.

images by the Bishop unless noted

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Stephen Walter Gossin
Stephen Walter Gossin
12 days ago

Fantastic work as always, Agent Bishop. I really enjoyed this one.

GirchyGirchy
GirchyGirchy
20 days ago

This is why I love my ’98 C1500’s gauges. Simple, massive, easy to read, everything you want and nothing you don’t. Look at that speedo, fuckin’ huge and maxes out at 100. Plenty of gradation so it’s obvious how fast you’re going, down to 1mph.

https://www.usspeedo.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/SEGM98-scaled.jpg

JC Miller
JC Miller
21 days ago

You could complain about car speedos, or watch this and weep(definitely uses all the speedo, and then some:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4lDfyoFgtY
See old good times

BH
BH
21 days ago

I always preferred the late model Toyotas that maxed out at 110 to 120–putting 60 MPH at the top.

If you car can actually go fast, more cars should be like SAAB and keep going around…

<img src="https://hosting.photobucket.com/albums/v509/jmcox44/Saab_9-5_DashLights.jpg" alt="https://hosting.photobucket.com/albums/v509/jmcox44/Saab_9-5_DashLights.jpg" />

https://hosting.photobucket.com/albums/v509/jmcox44/Saab_9-5_DashLights.jpg

Ben
Ben
21 days ago

The real crime here is that 25 mph gap between numbers. I don’t care how you design your speedo, but if you use anything other than 10 mph gaps I’m probably going to hate you.

GirchyGirchy
GirchyGirchy
20 days ago
Reply to  Ben

They’re awful!

Myk El
Myk El
21 days ago

I’ve had some very interesting (to me, at least) speedometers in my car history. I loved the color changing one my 1961 Olds had. Here’s a video of the same functionality from the previous year:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0dDm6waCIo

The 2005 Pontiac GTO has one set of numbers, but you can switch it to Metric and whichever you’re set to is illuminated and the needle adjusts accordingly:

https://cdn.dealeraccelerate.com/volo/1/20754/876012/790×1024/2005-pontiac-gto

(hoping this image link works for you all)

What’s interesting is that I had figured that the Holden Monaro used basically the same thing, but no, just metric.

Spikersaurusrex
Spikersaurusrex
21 days ago

My first car was a 1993 Geo Metro. Its speedometer went to a wildly optimistic 90 mph. I lived in Colorado at the time and it was fine around town, but you definitely did not want to take it into the mountains.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
21 days ago

Speaking ex-designer to designer here, this would be a good time to bring up analog v.s. digital gauges.

Decades ago the air force did a study on readability of both. They found analog gauges significantly easier and faster for a pilot to extract relevant information from. This is based on the simple fact that our brains are more effective at relational processing than absolute processing. An example. You have to be somewhere at 10 o’clock. Digital read out says 9:47. Your brain has to take the extra step to process how much time you have left. If you look at an analogue readout (even a digital simulation), you immediately get a sense of the time you have left to go in relation to that 10 o’clock mark.

What does this have to do with your article? Well two things. First piloting a vehicle is a physical task of coordination and relative motion. Relative information is more useful that just having a number thrown at you. Think about leaning towards something. Knowing your body is at a 15% angle is useless, it’s the relative angle you are used to that helps you keep your balance. But more to your point, behaviour can also be nudged by relative information.

Where I am in Canada, for the longest time the absolute top legal speed was 100kmph (raised to 120 in recent years). My car’s speedometer has 100kmph marked top dead centre. On the freeway, I can actually just see that peripherally. It’s actually an ease of use thing. On secondary roads at 80kmph, it’s 10 o’clock. Pattern memory removes a lot of distraction from associating the correct speed with the task at hand.

TBF, It helps that I drive an MT as well and have a sense of each gear’s sweet spot to tell me if I’m over cooking it or not.

My theory is that our dashboard’s are cluttered with junk information and badly communicated information because LCD screens are cheap and you can put anything on them. Manufacturer’s are tempted to clutter them up with junk because they know there are enough customers who will think it’s cool v.s caring if it’s useful.

After all, how many cars do you see with big rear wings on them? Vrooooommmm!!! I’m a cool race car driver cosplay all day!

Black Peter
Black Peter
21 days ago

Nice comments!
I wear analog watches for the same reason, I think I mentally note the actual time and “time until” faster than a digital one. I think you and the Bishop are both right on digital “gauges”; on the one hand they do seem to put information in because they can, but to his point why isn’t it more adaptable? I can turn off the “extra” displays on my GTI, or select a pre-programmed display of just gas, mileage and speed.
On “100kmph marked top dead centre” I’m sure you have noticed on older race cars they rotated the tachs, so redline or max usable revs was at 12:00. The numbers didn’t really matter, just the needle position, this reduced the information gathering down to almost zero effort.

Hamish48
Hamish48
20 days ago

Yep, big rear wings on auto trans sedans designed for mommies to take their kids to school or shoppies – not to mention exhaust systems with holes hammered into them to get that racy F1 sound. Vroooom me up, Scottie! BTW, what’s an apex?

AMGx2
AMGx2
21 days ago

My old SLK55 goes to 320 km/h (200 mph) 🙂 But in reality it’s Vmax is about 280 km/h (175 mph). I never tested that and probably never will.

Surprisingly doing 180 km/h ( 110 mph ) on a real race track feels very stable and assuring.

MP81
MP81
21 days ago

In all honesty, out of our four cars (’17 Volt, ’14 Cruze Diesel, ’07 Cobalt and ’81 Z28), the only car I look at the analog speedo in is the Cobalt – simply because it is the only one that doesn’t have a digital speedo (the Volt obviously doesn’t have a typical cluster, and the Camaro has a set of Dakota Digital HDX gauges, so it has a pair of screens).

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
21 days ago

Yes! Our Subaru Forester has the same thing as the Camry(maybe the same gauge), it’s ridiculous. My 2000 Ford Ranger just goes to like 85 or 90 and I love it, also seems like it accelerates quicker as the needle moves faster lol.

Grey alien in a beige sedan
Grey alien in a beige sedan
21 days ago

Yanno… I think we should go back to the 85mph speedos… If only to be able to “bury the needle” with a modern powerplant.

Toobs-N-Stuff
Toobs-N-Stuff
21 days ago

as a young man, I proudly pegged the 120 mph speedo on my parents’ 1976 Ford LTD Station Wagon.

the battlewagon had the 400M with a 4 barrel, got about 12 miles per gallon downhill with a tailwind and the ignition off, but was actually one of the fastest things you could buy in ’76

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