Driving for Efficiency

Posted by Cindy Frantz
Cindy Frantz
Cindy Frantz is the Co-Chair of the Energy Planning Committee of the Oberlin Pro
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on June 29, 2012 in Energy Matters

Now that summer is here, many of us are heading off in our cars on vacations and day trips.  We’d all be vacationing out at the Reservoir if we didn’t have the power of gasoline to take us hundreds of miles away.  Let’s get the most out of this superfuel.

With gas often $3.50 a gallon, there’s an obvious financial benefit to using it efficiently.  And the hot summer temperatures remind us that a planet that’s 2 degrees warmer will not be a pleasant place for our children to live.  Decreasing our gas use helps decrease our dependence on foreign oil as well.  The Consumer Federation of America estimates that simply increasing our fuel efficiency by 5 miles per gallon would save about 23 billion gallons of gasoline each year, and cut oil imports by about 14 percent.

The easiest way to use less gas is to buy the most fuel efficient model that meets your needs: Make one decision, then benefit from it for as long as you own the vehicle. The average American car gets about 24 miles per gallon (mpg); but we can do better than that.  The average in Europe is nearly twice as high – more like in the 40 – 50 mpg range.  Fuel efficient cars already exist.  We just need to buy them.

But even if you’re not in the market for a new car right now, there are still things you can do to maximize fuel efficiency.   The way you drive has a big impact on how much fuel you use.  The more you slam on the accelerator or the brake, the more fuel you’re using.  Why?  Every time you press the accelerator, you’re gobbling up more gas; every time you press the brake, you are wasting the momentum that gas created. Changing how you use those two pedals can reduce your fuel consumption by as much as 35%, according to Edmunds.com.  Accelerate more slowly, and coast as much as you can before stop signs, red lights, and turns.  

Those who take this seriously call it “hypermiling.”  They can often get 55 mpg out of a car that would usually only get 35; for them, it’s like trying to beat their high score on a video game. The really hard core can do amazing things.  For example, Wayne Gerdes (who started cleanmpg.com) once drove a Honda Civic hybrid from Chicago to New York on one tank of gas – which means he was getting 65 mpg.

You’ll also get better gas mileage on the highway if you maintain steady speeds by using cruise control. Cruise control minimizes the speed fluctuations caused by human error, distraction, or a really good rock song on the radio.  Finally, speeding doesn’t just increase your risk for a ticket.  It also costs more in gas.  According to the US Department of Energy, 60 mph is a magic number – speeds above that take a LOT more gas to maintain.  Every 5 mph above 60 mph is like paying another 20 cents a gallon for gas.

Another easy way to get more miles from a gallon of gas is to not burn gas when you’re not going anywhere:  don’t idle.  It only takes a few seconds of sitting still to make it worth turning off your engine, and contrary to popular belief, it is not bad for your car to turn it off.  To stretch tax dollars as far as possible, the City of Oberlin has adopted an anti-idling policy for employees driving city vehicles.  Another benefit is keeping toxic fumes and out of the air.

It turns out that whether you cool your car with air conditioning or open windows doesn’t matter all that much (although for the record, at highway speeds AC seems to be better, while at lower speeds the open window is more efficient).  Keeping your tires properly inflated helps a bit to, while also improving the handling and safety of your car. But it’s not a big bang for your buck at the air pump.

Happy travels!

What strategies do you use to drive more efficiently? Join the conversation below and let us know!

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Cindy Frantz is the Co-Chair of the Energy Planning Committee of the Oberlin Project. She is the Chair of the Board of Directors of Providing Oberlin With Efficiency Responsibly (POWER) and Associate Professor of Psychology at Oberlin College.


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