Why Do Car Speedometers Go To 160 Mph On Cars That Can't Go That Fast?

Hands on steering wheel in front of illuminated dashboard
Unsplash | Randy Tarampi

We've seen all kinds of big technological leaps in the automotive industry in recent years, from integrated smart features to fully autonomous vehicles.

But there's one aspect of the driving experience that's firmly rooted in the past — in fact, depending on how you look at it, it isn't even rooted in reality. Since most cars can't go 160 miles an hour, why do speedometers go that high?

Read on and find out.

Cars have a few weird design choices.

An Audi steering wheel
Unsplash | Wassim Chouak

We take for granted that the steering wheel controls the direction of the car. But if we were designing cars from scratch today, wouldn't a joystick of some kind make more sense? As it turns out, steering wheels are based on the helm of a ship. That means that the steering wheel in your Honda Civic has a lineage that goes back centuries.

What's with the speedometer?

Close-up of a car speedometer
Unsplash | Cole Freeman

We all know what the speedometer does: it provides a needle and a dial to tell you how fast you're going.

The weird part, though, is the fact that car speedometers go up to 160 miles per hour, and sometimes even higher.

It's an unrealistically high speed.

A white car driving on a road, with blurred background
Unsplash | Mauro Sbicego

Putting aside the reality that, outside of a racetrack, it's illegal to go that fast pretty much anywhere in the United States, there's also the fact that most cars can't even go 160 miles per hour.

Part of the answer has to do with aesthetics.

A car's dashboard
Unsplash | Riccardo Pierri

Next time you're in your car, check the speedometer. You might notice that at the speeds you're typically driving, the needle will appear on top. That's no accident. A Toyota spokesman told CNN that manufacturers try to place the typical operating speeds of cars — 45 to 70 mph or so — at the top of the speedometer for legibility.

This weirdness is nothing new.

A Ford Model T
Unsplash | Matthew Lancaster

Right from the dawn of the automotive age, cars would feature speedometers with unattainable speeds on the far end. Automotive historian Bruce Woolsey told CNN that cars as far back as the 1920s had speedometers that topped out at 120 miles per hour — a speed those cars could never actually reach.

Things changed in the 1950s.

Interior of a vintage Ford Thunderbird
Unsplash | Nagy Arnold

At a certain point, cars became powerful enough that they actually could get close to that 120 mph threshold. So manufacturers tweaked the speedometer once more, giving it a range that topped out at 150 or 160 mph, a standard we're still seeing today.

One change could have altered history.

A vintage car dashboard
Unsplash | Ryan De Hamer

Because of a perception that these speedometers were tacitly encouraging drivers to reach unsafe speeds, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tried to institute a new rule: speedometers would be capped at speeds of 85 mph. It didn't go over well, and the initiative went nowhere.

Some newer speedometers take a different approach.

Interior of a car
Unsplash | Ildar Garifullin

Some cars do away with some of the traditional dial-based instruments and instead show the exact speed in a numerical format. That means that instead of a dial that goes up to 160, speed is indicated with a digital display.

Do speedometers encourage speeding?

Car driving in the middle of two-lane highway
Unsplash | Erik Mclean

The reason for speedometers going so high basically boils down to symmetry and readability, but do those extreme speeds on the right side of the dial encourage drivers to go faster? It's a controversial topic, but some data would suggest that this is, in fact, the case.

What do you think?

Hands on steering wheel in front of illuminated dashboard
Unsplash | Randy Tarampi

Even if you're driving every day, it's easy to forget that your speedometer likely shows an impossible speed. But now that it's been pointed out, it's kind of hard to miss.

Let us now what you think of this weird driving quirk, and share any thoughts you have on what you'd like to see in your car's user interface.