Longest Distance in an Hour

It’s the easy questions that seem to be the most difficult to answer sometimes. The search engine query captured in my web logs appeared to be a simple affair. "What is the longest distance someone can drive in an hour." I figured the answer would probably be the portions of the Autobahn in Germany that don’t have a set speed limit (albeit 130 kilometres per hour / 81 miles per hour is recommended) and the new section of Texas highway that has been fixed at 85 mph (137 kph).

I established some ground rules. First, I’d stick with measurements as applied by specific nations. Thus, for countries that post their speed limits in miles per hour — primarily the United States — I’ll specify miles per hour first with kilometers per hour in parentheses. I’d flip the order for other nations. Second, I’d keep it to legally-recognized speeds. Third, I’d use Google Maps as my arbitrator. Whatever Google Maps said could be covered in an hour was what mattered for this investigation.

Here’s the interesting thing. The distances Google said could be covered in an hour were generally less than the posted speed limits, and sometimes considerably less. Also, I checked some of the exact same segments a second time and they would change slightly. Don’t blame me if what I stated below differs from what you see on the map when you open it. I’m beginning to think that perhaps Google changes its calculations on-the-fly depending upon local conditions.

I’ll start with Texas first, not Germany. The reasons will become obvious soon enough.

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I distinctly remember reading about a spot in Texas with an 85 mph (137 kph) speed limit. Unfortunately it appears I jumped the gun by a few weeks. The New York Times reported that Texas is Reclaiming the Title of Fastest in the Land. Unfortunately that 41 mile (66 km) segment between Austin and San Antonio won’t open until November 2012. This could become the one-hour distance champion depending on how traffic flows on either end of that stretch. I’ll try to check it in a few weeks and provide an update.

Thus out of necessity I shifted to other parts of Texas that currently have 80 mph (129 kph) speed limits. Those are practically on a par with recommended speed limits for unrestricted sections of the Autobahn. The best Texan example I discovered was a section of Interstate 20 in the vicinity of Pecos. Google Maps estimated that 72.4 miles (116.5 km) could be covered in one hour.

See what I mean? The speed limit is 80 mph and Google estimates that a driver can be expected to cover only 72.4 miles during that interval. Maybe that calculation would make sense for a long journey, however I’m pretty sure I could put the car on cruise control at 80 mph in this empty quadrant and drive for a single hour without stopping for a meal or a restroom break. I could probably get away with more than that, and likely would if I ever attempted this segment in the physical world. However, let’s remember the ground rule about obeying the law for this exercise.

Nonetheless, I relied upon Google as the decision-maker with the assumption that whatever algorithm they developed would level the playing field to account for "real world" conditions as opposed to theoretical maximums. I guess I can see their reasoning. Certainly there have been plenty of times when I’ve gotten stuck in heavy, slow-moving traffic where the posted speed limit taunting me like a cruel joke.

Portions of Interstate 10 in West Texas also feature 80 mph speed limits. I calculated a 72.3 mile (116 km) distance over an hour west of Fort Stockton (map) and 71.6 miles (115 km) east of Fort Stockton (map).

Utah has a 20-mile segment allowing an 80 mph speed on Interstate 15. The best I could do there was a theoretical 68.4 miles (110 km) over the hour-long period (map).

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Germany was a huge disappointment. Sections of the Autobahn may not have speed limits per se, however try arguing that with Google Maps. It won’t work. I found a nice resource detailing unrestricted sections of the Autobahn (legend) and attempted various map segments. The best I could produce was a portion of A20 and a portion of A24 that both returned values of 109 kilometres (68 mi) for the fictional hour (above and map).

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Poland and Bulgaria both have 140 kmh (87 mph) maximum speed limits. My attempts to find decent results in Poland were a bust. Bulgaria was much better and produced a value esentually equivalent to Texas. The best result was 115 km (71.5 mi) over that imaginary hour.

Finally I turned to Australia, somehow figuring that areas in the Northern Territory zoned for 130 kmh (81 mph) over wide open spaces would generate excellent results. They did not, or I didn’t find them, or something. Google Maps didn’t like the Northern Territory at all. 81 kilometers (50 mi) for an hour on the Stuart Highway in the middle of nowhere (map)? Really?

Let me know if you find anything better than the Texas and Bulgaria results.

Totally Unrelated

Regular reader "Josh" thought the 12MC audience might enjoy a website with 9,308 photographs of North Dakota. I did, and I found the premise even more interesting. The photographer visited every single dot on the map of North Dakota and took at least one photograph. Wow!

Thanks Josh!

8 Replies to “Longest Distance in an Hour”

    1. Excellent. So now we have our line in the sand: 121km (75 mi) covered in a single hour in Hungary. Can anyone beat that distance or do we crown “January First-of-May” our champion?

  1. I think you could get some decent ones up in ND-MT. I remember on a trip to Montana that even though they did put back a speed limit after not having one for awhile, we were told by someone who lived there that as long as you don’t do anything stupid, they won’t pull you over for exceeding…but I guess that breaks your rules.

  2. I was on I-10 out of Fort Stockton back in February and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw 80. Even the two-laners in West Texas, if I recall, were quite high. I’m so used to the east coast rules now and seeing nothing over 70 (if that)…

    In reply to John: When I was living in Montana, the rule of driving back in the no speed limit days was to be “reasonable and prudent”. To most Montanans, this meant at least 90. I recall a particular family trip up to Canada (Billings to Lethbridge, Alberta) taking somewhere around 5 hours and 45 minutes (legally) when the norm these days is much closer to 7 hours or more (all these numbers include a border and gas stop). Lot’s of stretches of nothingness up there and a lot of road to cover. The same applies for Texas.

  3. This spring I made my first long-distance drive that involved a smartphone. I realized quickly that, without speeding much, I could outrun Google Maps’ time estimates in the wide-open parts of the country (i.e. almost everywhere from Minnesota to Oregon, which is what I was doing). Even including my stops, I regularly moved faster than Google thought I would for intermediate distances. Over the course of a day, I never beat Google’s time, because I always spent too long wandering in towns, eating non-fast-food (Yelp: another benefit of smartphones), etc. But when I wanted shorter-distance time estimates, I started to ignore Google and just used the mileage.

    I wondered at first if Google’s algorithm factors in the number of services available in addition to speed limit. Like maybe the Bonneville Salt Flats section of I-80 in western Utah, which is dead straight for about 40 miles and has no exits with services for about 65 miles would have a time estimate that’s closer to the speed limit (75mph). But it doesn’t. You will only go 65 miles in 1 hour there, according to Google. Where will you spend your extra time? Maybe at the one rest stop (admittedly, pretty cool), or one of those military exits. Who knows.
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    Google clearly isn’t taking the distance of the drive into account, so I wonder if they’re just knocking a constant fraction off of the speed limit to arrive at a time estimate in the Time = Distance / Rate equation. But that fraction changes depending on where you are in the country, not just on the speed limit. For instance, in West Texas, you’ll average 90.5% of the speed limit over one hour, but in Utah in my example, you’ll only average 86.7% of the speed limit, despite the fact that they’re both wide-open interstates with very few services. Those percentages are the same if you shorten your journey to one mile on Google Maps too.

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