When you first turn on your car in the middle of a sunny day, chances are your dashboard probably says it’s quite hot out. Like, a lot hotter than it feels. There’s a reason why car thermometers don’t always seem accurate, according to atmospheric scientist Greg Porter at .
Your dashboard temperature reading actually comes from something called a thermistor, which is similar to a thermometer but instead of mercury, it uses electrical current to measure changes in temperature. (Remember that temperature is an indication of how fast or slow gas molecules in the air are moving around. The higher the reading, the greater the molecules' kinetic energy.) In a car, that thermistor is located just behind the grill in the front of the car. Therein lies the problem: Your car's temperature readings come from an unusually hot location.
Asphalt roads get really, really hot in warm weather (enough so that cities become significantly hotter than their greener surroundings in the summer), so a temperature reading taken just above the surface of the road isn’t going to be super accurate. Heat radiates up from the road—as you can see on particularly hot days when the highway starts to look shimmery—and the thermistor in your car picks up that excess heat. It’s like measuring the temperature of a large room by sticking the thermometer an inch away from the fireplace.
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That doesn’t mean your dashboard temperature readings are useless. When it’s not as hot out, there isn’t much interference from heat rising off the road. It’s also more effective when you’re moving—if you’re traveling down the highway, it will pick up less heat radiation from the road than if you were sitting in a parked car. However, Porter warns, the thermistor isn’t sensitive enough to distinguish between one-degree differences, which can be dangerous if you’re driving in the winter and need to know if temperatures have hit freezing or are floating just above.
In short, as nice as it is to know how temperatures are changing from one destination on your road trip to another, take that dashboard number with a grain of (road) salt.
[h/t The Washington Post]