“If my sat nav shows I’m going 4/5 miles an hour slower than my car speedometer says, which do I believe?” – Asked by car owners everywhere.
Many drivers have reported this exact phenomenon in recent years, as satnav has become more prevalent in cars, and the situation is actually common to nearly every car on the market. But why is junk car buyers Houston this the case? Surely car manufacturers can make their speedos accurate to the precise mph or km/h you are travelling at?
How a car speedometer works
Speed is the measurement of distance over time. But a car speedometer doesn’t actually measure how fast you travel from Point A to Point B. Car speedos usually work by measuring rotation of the car’s driveshaft, axle or wheel. They then use some basic maths to extrapolate that rotation and determine how fast you are travelling. It’s a very similar concept to a bicycle speedometer.
However, if the diameter of the wheel/tyre alters, the extrapolation calculation will be incorrect. For example, if the diameter will increase if you put new tyres on the car (more tread, which wears down over thousands of miles) or increase the tyre pressure. This means that, for each revolution of the wheel, the car is travelling further, meaning your speed is greater.
If the diameter decreases (eg – worn tyres, less air in the tyres, a different brand of tyre with slightly different dimensions, more load in the car weighing it down and compressing the tyres), then the car will be travelling slower for each revolution of the wheel.
Margin of error in a car speedometer
The differences in wheel diameter resulting from the above circumstances could be tiny (maybe a few millimetres), but at 30mph your car wheels are rotating 6-7 times every second, so it can quickly make a difference of a few miles per hour. This margin for error is taken into account in how the law is applied, and how manufacturers calibrate their car speedos.
How a satnav speedometer works
Satnav measures your car’s speed by actual distance over time using GPS satellite tracking. It repeatedly locates your exact position on earth via satellite and calculates how far you have travelled, then divides by the time it took for you to travel that distance. Satnav accuracy is determined by satellite signal quality and is unaffected by your car’s tyres. Many satnavs are unable to account for changes in vertical direction, so may be less accurate if you are travelling up or down a steep hill. They are also inherently more accurate at higher speeds, as a larger distance over time reduces rounding errors.
Some factory satnav systems will also use data from the car to integrate with the GPS signal to improve overall accuracy.
The law for car speedometers in the UK
The UK law is based on the EU standard, with some minor changes. A speedo must never show less than the actual speed, and must never show more than 110% of actual speed + 6.25mph. So if your actual speed is 40mph, your speedo could legally be reading up to 50.25mph but never less than 40mph. Or to put it another way, if your speedo is reading 50mph, you won’t be doing more than 50mph but it’s possible you might actually only be travelling at 40mph.
To ensure that they comply with the law and make sure that their speedometers are never showing less than actual speed, car manufacturers will normally deliberately calibrate their speedos to read ‘high’ by a certain amount. So that’s why your car speedometer reads higher than your satnav.