Introduction to How Odometers Work

Mechanical odometers have been counting the miles for centuries. Although they are a dying breed, they are incredibly cool because they are so simple! A mechanical odometer is nothing more than a gear train with an incredible gear ratio.


­The odometer we took apart for this article (pictured above) has a 1690:1 gear reduction! That means the input shaft of this odometer has to spin 1,690 times before the odometer will register 1 mile.

Odometers like this are being replaced by digital odometers that provide more features and cost less, but they aren't nearly as cool. In this article, we'll take a look inside a mechanical odometer, and then we'll talk about how digital odometers work.

The worm gear reductions are visible in this picture.

Mechanical Odometers

Mechanical odometers are turned by a flexible cable made from a tightly wound spring. The cable usually spins inside a protective metal tube with a rubber housing. On a bicycle, a little wheel rolling against the bike wheel turns the cable, and the gear ratio on the odometer has to be calibrated to the size of this small wheel. On a car, a gear engages the output shaft of the transmission, turning the cable.

The cable snakes its way up to the instrument panel, where it is connected to the input shaft of the odometer.

The Gearing

This odometer uses a series of three worm gears to achieve its 1690:1 gear reduction. The input shaft drives the first worm, which drives a gear. Each full revolution of the worm only turns the gear one tooth. That gear turns another worm, which turns another gear, which turns the last worm and finally the last gear, which is hooked up to the tenth-of-a-mile indicator.

The output of the last worm gear drives a shaft that turns the tenth-of-a-mile indicator.

Each dial is then turned by pegs on the previous dial through a small helper gear (white).

Each indicator has a row of pegs sticking out of one side, and a single set of two pegs on the other side. When the set of two pegs comes around to the white plastic gears, one of the teeth falls in between the pegs and turns with the indicator until the pegs pass. This gear also engages one of the pegs on the next bigger indicator, turning it a tenth of a revolution.

On the white wheel between the "3" and the "4," there are two pegs. One time per revolution, one of the gear teeth on the white gear falls in between these two pegs, causing the black gear next to it to move one-tenth of a revolution.

You can now see why, when your odometer "rolls over" a large number of digits (say from 19,999 to 20,000 miles), the "2" at the far left side of the display may not line up perfectly with the rest of the digits. A tiny amount of gear lash in the white helper gears prevents perfect alignment of all the digits. Usually, the display will have to get to 21,000 miles before the digits line up well again.

You can also see that mechanical odometers like this one are rewindable. When you run the car in reverse, the odometer actually can go backwards -- it's just a gear train. In the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," in the scene where they have the car up on blocks with the wheels spinning in reverse -- that should've worked! In real life, the odometer would've turned back. Another trick is to hook the odometer's cable up to a drill and run it backwards to rewind the miles.

While that does work on older mechanical odometers, it does not work on the new electronic ones, as we will see in the next section...

Computerized Odometers

If you make a trip to the bike shop, you most likely won't find any cable-driven odometers or speedometers. Instead, you will find bicycle computers. Bicycles with computers like these have a magnet attached to one of the wheels and a pickup attached to the frame. Once per revolution of the wheel, the magnet passes by the pickup, generating a voltage in the pickup. The computer counts these voltage spikes, or pulses, and uses them to calculate the distance traveled.

If you have ever installed one of these bike computers, you know that you have to program them with the circumference of the wheel. The circumference is the distance traveled when the wheel makes one full revolution. Each time the computer senses a pulse, it adds another wheel circumference to the total distance and updates the digital display.

Many modern cars use a system like this, too. Instead of a magnetic pickup on a wheel, they use a toothed wheel mounted to the output of the transmission and a magnetic sensor that counts the pulses as each tooth of the wheel goes by. Some cars use a slotted wheel and an optical pickup, like a computer mouse does. Just like on the bicycle, the computer in the car knows how much distance the car travels with each pulse, and uses this to update the odometer reading.

One of the most interesting things about car odometers is how the information is transmitted to the dashboard. Instead of a spinning cable transmitting the distance signal, the distance (along with a lot of other data) is transmitted over a single wire communications bus from the engine control unit (ECU) to the dashboard. The car is like a local area network with many different devices connected to it. Here are some of the devices that may be connected to the computer network in a car:

Many vehicles use a standardized communication protocol, called SAE J1850, to enable all of the different electronics modules to communicate with each other.

The engine control unit counts all of the pulses and keeps track of the overall distance traveled by the car. This means that if someone tries to "roll back" the odometer, the value stored in the ECU will disagree. This value can be read using a diagnostic computer, which all car-dealership service departments have.

Several times per second, the ECU sends out a packet of information consisting of a header and the data. The header is just a number that identifies the packet as a distance reading, and the data is a number corresponding to the distance traveled. The instrument panel contains another computer that knows to look for this particular packet, and whenever it sees one it updates the odometer with the new value. In cars with digital odometers, the dashboard simply displays the new value. Cars with analog odometers have a small stepper motor that turns the dials on the odometer.

For more information on odometers and other often-overlooked car parts, check out the links on the next page.