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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VanGuy
VanGuy
2 months ago

I’m not a fan of the wraparound idea (especially for analog and with km/h numbers also shown), but I definitely agree that they should be limited to something like “proven max speed” plus a small margin (3?), rounded up to the nearest increment of 5 or 10.

My ’97 Econoline-150 was absolutely respectable in this aspect. Its speedometer went up to 100, and the fastest I could ever get it (even going slightly downhill at the time) was 96.

My 2012 Prius v has a digital speedometer and at least it’s also honest–it uses 7-segment numbers, but the hundreds digit is only enough to show “1”. Max speed is apparently 106 or so.

Forbestheweirdo
Forbestheweirdo
2 months ago

Strongly agree with this. My wife has had a couple minivans, the first one was a Honda Odyssey and the speedometer went to a laughable 160. I can’t imagine what sort of insanity you’d have to do to get a minivan to that speed but it would be terrifying! The current van is a Toyota sienna, which has a much more reasonable 110 top on the speedometer, which I appreciate. While I have never taken it over 95, I have every reason to believe it could get to something in the neighborhood of 110 so it makes sense. Also, that 40-70 range is up top as Toyota claims it’s supposed to be

TheCrank
TheCrank
2 months ago

One fun thing about the days of the 85mph speedo was being able to peg it at the max. It’s the small joys, isn’t it?

David Escargot
David Escargot
2 months ago

I found it way cooler as a kid to watch my dads 1986 Ford Falcon speedo hit 180kph (in Mexico) and bounce around against the needle stopper thingo rather and just imagine… anything after 180 was warp speed…

In my 2004 Ford Falcon the speedo tops out at 260kph… seeing as it’s electronocally limited to 230kph (more like 225ish real speed) this makes sense… I do laugh every time I borrow my dads van… that speedo goes to 260kph… the van will only do about 200… ask me how I know

If anyone wants to know how boaty an XF Falcon wagon, the first one mentioned, is at 205kph, the answer is yes

Last edited 2 months ago by David Escargot
EricTheViking
EricTheViking
2 months ago

The General Motors North American-built vehicles exported to Europe from the late 1970s to the early 1980s had those speedometer with weird red-colour bar extending from 100 km/h mark to the end. No idea why that was so even though no European country had low speed limit of 100 km/h on the highways.

Brynjaminjones
Brynjaminjones
2 months ago

I never realised that people thought the speedometer reflected the car’s top speed, until one of my childhood friends quoted some absurd top speed for their parents’ car. I still remember how ridiculous I found it, even though I was probably 10 years old at the time.

I also remember more recently travelling in the car with a work colleague, and noticing that the speedometer of their SEAT Ibiza with a 1.6 TDI (and around 100hp) went all the way to 160mph – hilarious!

CrystalEyes
CrystalEyes
2 months ago

The aftermarket tach in my truck goes to 8000rpm. Only needs about half that.

Lightning
Lightning
2 months ago

Hmm, I know the Subaru Legacy GT-B wagon was a 270kph car, but looking at BaT, the mechanical speedometer only goes to 180 kph. I wonder if the needle just got stuck on 180 when they did their world record run (for stock, mass produced wagons).

David Escargot
David Escargot
2 months ago
Reply to  Lightning

In my dads XF Falcon wagon the speedo would just jump around on the peg at 180kph at over 200kph… I wasn’t sure what was happening as a kid

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
2 months ago
Reply to  Lightning

All Japanese cars are (were?) electronically limited to 180 km/h, so no need for more speedo capability. I think for a world record run you might need something more dependable than the speedometer anyhow…

Mpphoto
Mpphoto
2 months ago

The extra dots for higher speeds are an interesting idea. Imagine someone gets pulled over. Cop: “How fast do you think you were going?” Driver: “I don’t know. There are no numbers on that part of the speedometer.” Cop: “Obviously, you were going too fast. The numbers end at 85.” I would hope the lack of numbers would keep people from speeding excessively, but the stupidity of humans is easy to underestimate. Without the numbers, someone may go 110 and think they’re “only” going 90 because they don’t know how to read the markings. Sigh.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
2 months ago

When I saw the numbers highlighted in red, I thought this was going to be about the way some newer cars have different scales at the higher speeds, like 10-20-30…100-120-140-160 or something

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
2 months ago

The fastest I’ve driven was 120 mph in an 87 Toyota Camry on a straight stretch on a back highway…but it was great to see how fast I was going!

3WiperB
3WiperB
2 months ago

I just had a Camry as a rental this week too. It really felt outdated. Still had a physical key, the infotainment graphics were ancient, and the sport button seemed to do nothing. I couldn’t get over the fact that it had adaptive Cruise, but no blind spot monitors. I kind of ignored the speedometer though, and just used the digital one in the center.

Old Busted Hotness
Old Busted Hotness
2 months ago

In Ye Olde Days of mechanical gauges, they were calibrated to be most accurate halfway up the scale. Hence family sedans came with 120 mph speedos to be accurate at normal highway speeds.

My grandfather who worked for various railroads (I think he was working for PRR at the time) related a story of a steam locomotive that had been refurbished and had a 90 mph speedo instead of the 60 mph speedo it originally had. Engineer wrecked on a curve because he looked at where the needle was, not the number indicated by it.

Parsko
Parsko
2 months ago

Psychological reasons. And, they have nothing to do with what you think. Humans suck, and we especially suck when we see things changing a lot in our vision.

When a gauge only goes to 85, it’s EASY to see your speed changing in small increments up and down. So, it appears to bounce around a lot. And, humans suck, so this must be removed.

When the gauge goes to 185, you can’t easily discern between 50, 55, 53, cause it doesn’t seem like the gauge is moving much, it’s just in that blob around there.

Some clever human many years ago proposed the 185 gauge for “marketing” reasons, when they really were sick of seeing Ken and Karen tap there brakes every 10 seconds because they think the gas pedal has only two settings, ON and OFF.

MARK FISHER
MARK FISHER
2 months ago

My parent’s 1976 Chevette’s speedo went to 120…..lucky to hit half that.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
2 months ago
Reply to  MARK FISHER

Can you really call it a speedometer if it’s in a Chevette?

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
2 months ago

I always liked speedos that stopped around 120. Being able to pin that needle occasionally is cool, and most of the time you’re not near triple digits anyway.

FlavouredMilk
FlavouredMilk
2 months ago

My 1990 MX-5 speedometer reads up to 180kph. My 1990 MX-5 is capable of exactly 180kph. (Definitely tested on a closed circuit.)

The 1985 VK Commodore I was gifted by my father also has a 200kph speedometer that finishes right where the Trip reset button is, which I know for a fact that needle is more than happy to slam up against and tell you “Good luck, you don’t need to be looking down here anymore.”

https://res0.grays.com/handlers/imagehandler.ashx?t=sh&id=31208754&s=fl&index=0&ts=637540861880000000

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
2 months ago
Reply to  FlavouredMilk

Leyland P76s had a speedo that went to 200km/h, although mine went to 220km/h after I grafted in Rover SD-1 gauges in order to get a tachometer. Never did get mine much past 150, but a friend built a hot V8 for his P76, and one night out for a cruise he decided to test the top end of the newly run-in engine. We went right past the end of the scale and nearly back to zero (calculated later from gearing and tach readings we peaked at 245km/h) and then passed a police car hiding in a side street with a radar gun. The speed limit was 60km/h, so we managed 4 times the limit plus a bonus 5. They didn’t even bother to try to chase us.

FlavouredMilk
FlavouredMilk
2 months ago
Reply to  Morgan Thomas

God, that is MOVING.

I’d love to have heard that cops opinions after seeing that, ha.

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
2 months ago
Reply to  FlavouredMilk

So would I. It was a Nutmeg Targa Florio, and it was 3am on a dark night, so all they would have seen was a vaguely brown looking large blur with a cream stripe along the side flash past, so they would have likely had zero idea what it was other than stupidly fast. It was actually in a location right near where I grew up, and I was just telling the driver it might not be the best place to speed since cop cars regularly hid there to catch speeders. Just as I said it we saw the car, but knowing the side streets, I told him where to turn once we got the speed back down to something vaguely sensible, and sneaked off through back streets in a different direction in case they had radioed a description of us. Not that it would have helped, as even someone familiar with P76s would have struggled to identify it at that speed.
For some reason most times someone who couldn’t identify it was asked to guess what it was, they guessed Buick. Presumably because it was a big, odd looking V8 car they didn’t recognise they thought it must be American, but it still doesn’t explain picking Buick as a make, although it did have a tiny bit of Buick ancestry (the P76 V8 derived from the Rover V8, which was originally a Buick V8!)

David Escargot
David Escargot
2 months ago
Reply to  FlavouredMilk

Having been in an XF Falcon going off the end of the scale I can imagine the VK desired to change lanes if you blinked

Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
2 months ago

David your ‘wraparound speedometer’ idea is a solution looking for a problem. The Mustang was clever because they were sticking it to the Man by just erasing the numbers that are still there in your imagination. Winding the needle over is just poor design, worse than any perceived problem.

Plus, in a couple years all speedos will be digital representations and we can just design our own scale. Furlongs-per-fortnite, anyone?

Last edited 2 months ago by Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
2 months ago

Winding the needle over is poor design? Why? And gauge resolution is an actually important thing, you know.

Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
2 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

Because that’s not how dial gauges work.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
2 months ago

I would argue that dial gauges actually do work with the needle wrapping all the way around. 2/3 dial gauges work with the needle going 2/3 of the way around.

Zach
Zach
2 months ago

I’m fine with speedo inflation if we can just get some friggin metric units as standard. If they really want to inflate, a speedo that tops at 240(km/h) > one that tops at 150mph.

What if, instead of calling them meters, we call them “Texas yards” for a few years, just to get them adopted?

Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
2 months ago
Reply to  Zach

If we want a sure fire way to get metric units adopted here, just call them MAGAmeters.

Cayde-6
Cayde-6
2 months ago

New product idea for the compensating-for-something car buyer: a replacement dashboard that replaces the speedometer with a Mach meter

Cool Dave
Cool Dave
2 months ago

If you had the limit on the speedometer at 80mph you’d have that sucker pegged on most DFW freeways just keeping up with traffic.

My Ram 2500 has a speedo that goes to 120mph and I’m convinced without the governor (that I definitely did not hit officer) it would do that. Should an enormous truck do that? Probably not.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
2 months ago
Reply to  Cool Dave

DFW traffic is not for the weak. Same in Atlanta. It’s Thunderdome out there.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
2 months ago
Reply to  Cool Dave

I like the idea of a nationally mandated GPS based speed limiter to be installed for the term of ownership on any car owner by someone convicted of speeding. Similar to a breathalyzer for convicted DUIers:

Anything over the limit is allowed but it activates snitch mode which is clearly indicated by a tone and light. The system records the violation with camera footage (showing who’s in the car, speed limit signs and speed being traveled via frame rate) and OBD2 info to be uploaded to the cloud for the traffic parole officer. Yes those will exist too.

After more than a few minutes of speeding or 10-20 over the system automatically dials 911 so the driver can explain the need for speed ala Onstar. In case of a valid emergency the car can be unlocked into emergency mode – lights start flashing, horn honks and emergency vehicles are dispatched to help. An emergency can also be declared by pushing a big red button on the dashboard as well, maybe by pushing the flashers three times fast.

If no valid emergency is given the driver is warned: slow down or else!

If no slowdown follows the car goes into limp mode and can only be unlocked after all penalties, fines and sentence are served or the car is permanently removed from the violators possession (e.g. sold to a stranger, reposessed, etc).

Said system can be deactivated for track use or other valid special events. Also works for other crimes like carjackings thefts, etc.

Do that and I think you’ll see an end to the scourge of speeding.

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
2 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Dangerous drivers will just drive older cars that can’t be retrofitted.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
2 months ago

Leadfoots will have a fun time finding a pre OBDII car. A lot of those are gone thanks to the ravages of time, weather, cash for clunkers and collectors. That’s if OBDII is even needed at all.

Tristan Hixon
Tristan Hixon
2 months ago
Reply to  Cool Dave

Without the governor, your driveshaft would explode. That’s why trucks have lower top speeds than (even equivalently RWD) cars – because the shaft needs to be of a certain thickness and weight to be able to handle the forces that are likely to be put upon it. A truck’s driveshaft has to be able to handle up to it’s GWVR/tow rating, which is not small. But the larger, weightier driveshaft becomes a bomb over a certain rotational speed, because of centrifugal force (I know it’s only an apparent force and not a real one, but it’s also the most readily understood descriptor.)

Cool Dave
Cool Dave
2 months ago
Reply to  Tristan Hixon

You know, the driveshaft hadn’t even crossed my mind! I just chalked it up to the rationale that a 7000lb, 4WD truck has no right to go that fast.

Tristan Hixon
Tristan Hixon
2 months ago
Reply to  Cool Dave

If it was FWD/RWD with a rear transaxle (so that the torque/speed transmitted through the shaft was much lower due to the multiplier/divider being after the shaft), it could easily go faster – up until it became aero limited. Remember, Bentleys and Rollses are both really quite heavy and still capable of very high speeds.

Brunsworks
Brunsworks
2 months ago

I would settle for a speedometer than can be properly recalibrated for different tire diameters. I drive an ancient second-gen Scion xB that was designed to run stock on 55s, but I replaced them with 65s for a softer ride.Unfortunately, that makes the speedometer read a few MPH low at highway speeds, and the mechanics don’t seem to be able to recalibrate it.

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
2 months ago

> That Camry has 100MPH dead top center which is hardly a “typical operation speed” for a refrigerator-white urban-based rental car.

Ahem, this precisely the typical operation speed for Refrigerator-class rentals.

The Bishop
The Bishop
2 months ago
Reply to  Mechjaz

I stand corrected

Danny Zabolotny
Danny Zabolotny
2 months ago

I generally own cars that can actually use most of the speedometer, even if I have to be redlining the engine down a hill to get there (looking at you, 95 525i).

Brynjaminjones
Brynjaminjones
2 months ago

Same here. My ’98 Jeep XJ reads up to 120 and will hit about 115, although I value my life too much to get it up there these days!

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
2 months ago

Just do a horizontal ribbon with the needle moving to the right in a continuum, it can be whatever length is needed to fit the design of the dashboard and no worry over symmetry

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