What is a Trip Computer?

J.M. Densing

A trip computer is an electronic device that provides various bits of information to the driver of an automobile. It consists of an onboard computer that analyzes various functions of the car and a display screen that shows information to the driver. The typical trip computer shows constantly updated information, such as distance traveled, average speed, and average fuel consumption. Some are able to show information about more than one trip or driver and may have added functions such as low tire pressure warnings and maintenance reminders. Trip computers were once reserved for luxury vehicles, but they are increasingly available on less expensive models and typically can be added as an aftermarket option as well.

Some drivers use trip computers.
Some drivers use trip computers.

A trip computer has two main parts. The computer analyzes and records information about various vehicle systems. The display screen shows the resulting information to the driver in "real time." The display screen is usually located near the gauges, on the dashboard, or overhead. A trip computer is an extremely useful device that helps the driver stay aware of his or her driving habits and of the status of certain parts of the vehicle.

Run-flat tires have sensors that provide data to a vehicle's computer system, alerting the driver about low air pressure and other information.
Run-flat tires have sensors that provide data to a vehicle's computer system, alerting the driver about low air pressure and other information.

Some of the information that is usually shown by the trip computer includes distance traveled and average speed. This can help the driver figure out how much of a trip remains and if he or she is likely to arrive at the destination on time. Most trip computers also display fuel consumption information, including a rate that is averaged over time and a current, up-to-the-minute reading of fuel usage per unit of distance traveled. Some also show the distance the car can still travel before running out of fuel. This type of information is particularly useful on long trips.

The trip computer on some cars can also show additional information that may be useful to the driver. Low tire pressure warnings, for example, let the driver know if the tires are under or over-inflated. Maintenance reminders, such as remaining oil life, are often incorporated in the latest models as well. Many computers are able to switch between two separate trips or drivers and allow motorists to select which information they would like to see.

At one time, only premium car brands and models had trip computers available as an option. As technology becomes more widespread, many less expensive vehicles also come with this device standard or offer it as an option. There are also several types of aftermarket trip computers that can be added to a car that isn't equipped with one. Aftermarket devices are usually mounted in the dashboard and connected to the electrical and other systems. These units should be installed by a qualified professional.

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