September 2, 2011

Strategies for increased fuel efficiency

There is a lot of advice already on the Web on how to increase your transportation mileage with the car you already own, from people like you and me contributing to the wikipedia and wikihow sites, to Consumer Reports and the EPA. So here CelloMom will regurgitate only a handful of ideas; however, she will add suggestions for things to keep in mind when you're ready to buy your next car, as well as longer-term lifestyle changes, and more systemic changes. For example, the commuting calculation (see under the header Lifestyle Change, below), shows just how expensive the car commute can be: at least $200 per month for every 10 miles you live farther from your workplace.


Increase your mileage now

  • Keep acceleration force to a minimum. Resist the urge to check, at every traffic light, your car's specification that it can accelerate from 0 to 60mph in 8 seconds, or whatever. Those specs are probably correct, anyway. Pulling up to speed steadily will burn a lot less gas. For the same reason, use cruise control, especially on long trips. Avoid stop-and-go rush hour traffic as much as you can.
  • Keep braking to a (safe!) minimum. Even in hybrid cars, which use part of the car's kinetic energy to recharge the battery, there are losses that contribute to heat. In conventional cars that don't have regenerative braking, ALL your car's kinetic energy gets converted to heat at your brake pads; there's your direct contribution to global warming.
  • Minimise your trips. CelloMom, who has a memory like a steel sieve, finds that a shopping list or to-do list can shave many miles off her errands around town. On multiple-stop errands, try to first go to the stop farthest from your house, this gives your car a chance to warm up to its optimum temperature where it will be most fuel-efficient.
  • Mellow your driving style in general. Breathe deeply. If you're mad about something as you leave work, go for a little walk before you get into the car. Wherever you go, leave on time. Stress induces "vigorous" driving which is bad for your mileage and bad for safety.
  • On highways, avoid speeding. Way back, when the 55mph speed limit was imposed on interstates, that number was chosen because it was the average speed at which cars were most fuel efficient. It's still that way, even though the speed limit has been raised on many highways.
  • Avoid idling your car. Cars that are fitted with a stop/go system where the engine is automatically switched off when you're standing, say, at a traffic light, are shown (and advertised) to get significantly better mileage.
  • Keep your car as empty and light as possible. Your car is for moving, not storage. If you feel a need to lug your toolbox wherever you go, perhaps it's time for a new car? It must be said, CelloMom's dad once went on a 4-week camping trip carrying a spare cylinder head for his VW van, because he had heard some telltale noise. It turned out he did need it, and the spare saved the trip - but not all of us can "listen" to our cars like that.
  • Keep up the maintenance on your car. A happy car is a fuel- and cost-efficient car. A clunker spends a lot of its energy crying for service. Keep your tires at the right pressure.


When buying a new car, be aware, and be realistic, about your needs.

  • Actually, way before you need a new car, visit your local car temple and ask your dealer to offer more fuel efficient cars, adding your specific voice to the general pressure from the new CAFE standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025. Use CelloMom's reviews and tools to find out what fuel-efficient cars are on non-US roads right now, and ask for your favorite model(s) to be made available to you.
  • Match the car size to your true needs. If you're a size 8, you wouldn't wear size 12 clothing in case you'd grow into it; so why buy a car that carries seven people for your family of three? The safety argument still holds up to a point, but today's small cars have much better crash safety than the boats that plied US streets in the 1960s, because they have now been engineered to crumple in such a way as to catch most of the blow of an impact. (However, there are physical limits: a Fiat 500, with its tiny nose, will not be as safe as a Toyota Camry).
  • Match the engine size to your true needs. If you live in the mountains and your route home goes seriously up and down, then, yes, you might need that bigger engine. If you live on flat land, the bigger engine is a liability: it eats gas, and may be dangerous to your eggs, and to your driving record. Back in the 80's, CelloMom's family upgraded from a VW Golf with a 1.3L engine, to another Golf, but with a 1.6L engine. CelloMom's mother took the new car into town and promptly got a ticket for going 50mph in a 30mph zone. She never did hear the end of it.
  • Manual transmission used to be the way to fuel savings, because automatic transmission lost a lot of energy in friction. But the new transmission systems have been cunningly devised so save fuel, for instance by maintaining the engine at its optimum rotation speed (rpm), as is the case in CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) engines.
  • Keep your car as streamlined as possible: at higher speeds, the shape of the car determines the air resistance that the engine needs to overcome in order to keep the car moving. Deer antlers at Christmas time are cute, but they wreck your aerodynamics. Rear spoilers are meant to increase stability in Formula 1 racing cars: they look a little silly on a car going at the 25mph speed limit in US towns, and they do a number on your fuel efficiency on the highway.
  • Research the engines and find the one that matches your needs. Hybrids obviously give better mileage but are optimised for more temperate climates (the batteries like neither extreme cold nor extreme heat). Smaller engines are fine for flat terrain. Turbo-charged diesel engines give a bigger punch even at smaller engine size.
    Excuse me for spoiling the "fun", but when you live in the city, you don't need something that goes from 0 to 60 in 8 seconds, nor do you need something that can go 200km/hour (120mph) when the highway speed limit is still 65mph in most places.
  • Choose the tires that match your needs. Most cars come with an optional tire set, usually at extra cost, usually thinner in the radial direction (for a more sexy look), and wider. You might appreciate the wider tires in snow or sleety weather, because they give better traction. That traction come from increased rolling friction. So if you live where it rarely snows, you may want to opt for the better mileage you'll get from the thinner tires.


When you're ready for a lifestyle change:

  • Move closer to where you work. Commuting gives wear and tear not just on your car, but on your body and soul. And it's expensive. According to Consumer Reports, it costs between $0.50 and $1.50 per mile to operate your car (depending on the make and model), so the additional cost of commuting an extra 10 miles to work every day comes to $200-$600 per month. CelloMom got those estimates by multiplying the per-mile cost of your car ($0.50 - $1.50), by 20 miles per day (there and back), by at least 20 working days per month. Driving 50 miles to work every weekday costs at least $1000 per month; your job had better be worth that.
  • Walk or bike: to work, shopping, recreation. Cost: negative, since you get a bunch of health benefits which saves you money in the long run.
  • Telecommute; or, move your work to where you live. Commuting cost: zero. (Added benefit: much reduced dressing cost, since every telecommuting day is pajamas day). Not every job is amenable to this but many are, and business (one manager at a time) will eventually come round to the conclusion that for some of their workforce, flexible work hours and work place will make for happier and more productive employees.
  • Share your ride I: For commuting, consider a rideshare. Cuts your commuting costs down by a factor equal to the number of people with whom you share a car. Use the internet to help you find a suitable rideshare partner.
  • Share your ride II: If you need a car only occasionally, consider joining a carshare program such as Zipcar. If you need a car sporadically, consider renting one whenever necessary. This saves a bundle on the overhead costs of car ownership.
  • Share your ride III: Public transportation is marvelously efficient energy-wise, and you can spend your time on the train working, reading or catching up on sleep instead of ratcheting up your blood pressure behind the wheel.


When you're ready for systemic change:

  • Demand better roads. That's better, not more, roads. Potholes make you brake, swerve, or curse; none of those actions are energy efficient. And they lead to suffering on the part of your shock absorbers (CelloMom recently suffered a $800 bill for a pair of new shock absorbers; ouch).
  • Demand more bicycle paths. CelloMom is not talking about a bike sign painted on the asphalt of an otherwise car-dominated road. CelloMom is talking a real and official bike path, set apart from the car lanes by a tire-eating curb. A place where you wouldn't mind your 10-year old going by herself. Saves you a lot of gas going to the library, the pool, the soccer field, etc., and builds exercise naturally into your child's life, and your own.
  • Help your community build better public transport: the whole community will benefit. CelloMom's favorite example is that of the Brooklyn Bridge, which currently carries 140,000 cars with 178,000 passengers daily on three car lanes (each way). Its peak performance was achieved in 1907, when it carried 426,300 passengers a day. Back then it had one lane reserved for the elevated train, one lane for a cable car, and a third for private vehicles. The vehicles were mostly horse-drawn, but CelloMom doubts they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge more slowly than today's cars at rush hour. No wonder there is a proposal to re-awaken the potential of the Brooklyn and other New York bridges by reserving one lane in each direction for public transit.
  • Help your company towards flexible working arrangements. Examples of flextime: 8 hours a day, but start and end times are flexible so you don't waste time and gas in rush hour traffic (you must be present during core hours to facilitate meetings). A full workweek of 40 hours but done in 10 hours a day for 4 days: shaves one day's commute. 1-5 days a week of telecommuting, depending on the nature of your job and your responsibilities. Many telecommuters feel they are much more productive working away from the distractions of the water fountain, supervisors barging into your office, workplace intrigue and other assorted joys of office life.


....And CelloMom is convinced that YOU can think of myriad other ways to save fuel. So let's go out and DO it!


  1. There is no way we can control the cost of fuel. What we can do is only to find ways on how to spend it wisely. Personally, increasing my car's mileage would be the best option to conserve fuel.
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  2. Trip-minimization is one of those common-sense things that are not so common. One you get into the habit of writing down chores that *require* driving and add to each item a dollar estimate for the increased cost of the drive, it might be easier to combine trips. The cost is more than gas; each mile imposes wear-and-tear and brings us closer to the next oil change. The last firm I worked for figured about 30 cents a mile so that's the number I use. Suddenly that trip of four miles to save a dollar doesn't seem like such a good deal unless it's combined with several other trips!

  3. Hi rewinn, you're right that the per-mile cost of driving is more than just the gas; you can look it up for selected models at Consumer Reports, or browse the larger True Cost to Own database at Edmunds, which includes such things as insurance, financing, etc.

    I also find that often, when I postpone a trip to buy something I need, I find after a few days that I don't "need" that item after all. There's savings there too!


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