“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.
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:
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:
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:
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?
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?”
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.
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.
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:
Now let’s make the modifications (crudely in Photoshop):
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.
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:
Graphic LCD displays are, of course, much easier to provide different options. Let’s look at the graphic gauge example from my car again:
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.
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):
..and now here is the “autobahn” scale:
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.
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