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See Inside August 2009

Tips for the Kind of Gas Mileage You Really Want

A humorous view of the new federal gas mileage standard



Matt Collins

On May 19 President Barack Obama announced a new federal gas mileage standard: by 2016 the nation's entire car and light truck fleet should average 35.5 miles per gallon. Or just slightly less than the highway mileage I get in my 17-year-old Honda Civic.

The increase in the mileage requirement is actually modest. "The automakers' fleet average has been 27.5 mpg for years," according to an automobile insurance expert I spoke to. "However, this 'whole fleet average' is [expletive]. The rules by which they are allowed to achieve the fleet average are a joke." So when the rubber meets the road, 35.5 will be more like 32 or 28 or, more frighteningly, whatever number General Motors's stock happens to be trading at in 2016."

Nevertheless, the new standard may seem like a valiant (a mediocre Plymouth I drove in the 1970s) initiative on the horizon (a truly lousy Plymouth I owned in the 1980s) to make the country a bit less reliant (a crummy Plymouth I somehow avoided) on foreign oil, as well as less polluting and more innovative. But some fossil-fuel fans were aghast. Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn seemed near tears as he softly asked, “What if you want to drive a gas hog? You don’t have the right any longer in this country to spend your money to drive a gas hog?”

Senator, I feel your pain. But I offer you a solution, based on American ingenuity, sweat and spirit: with proper maintenance and driving behavior, it’s possible to ooze many fewer miles out of a given gallon of gas than whatever standard the feds might impose on us. Here are some tips for turning even the most fuel-efficient vehicle they can force us to drive into a gas-guzzling petroleum pig:

  • Always do jackrabbit starts. It’s easy, wastes gas and makes enough noise to let your fellow drivers know that you’ve got money to burn.
  • Make sure to accelerate and brake a lot as you drive, which can lower your highway mileage by a third.
  • Banish the phrase “cruise control” from your lexicon, unless you’re trying to keep Tom from expounding on the history of psychiatry or from jumping on Oprah’s couch.
  • Keep the tires underinflated. It’s a small thing, but every 3 percent loss in energy efficiency is a waste worth working for.
  • Never, ever get tune-ups. Such vigilant lack of vigilance should squander about another 4 percent.
  • Idle whenever possible. The only thing more efficient at being inefficient than this zero-mpg activity is to put the car up on blocks and run the engine with a brick on the accelerator. (If you commit to that latter effort, be sure not to do it in the garage—despite what some other members of Congress may insist, carbon emissions can be dangerous!)
  • Never stow anything in the truck if you can tie it on the roof. Aerodynamic drag will also drag down the mileage. Run the air conditioner with the windows open to increase wind resistance as well.
  • Never combine trips. If the supermarket and the dry cleaner are right next to each other, go to the supermarket, go home to drop off the groceries, then go back to the dry cleaner. (They probably need the extra time to finish the Martinizing, anyway.) Best time for these elective trips? Rush hour. Getting stuck in traffic is always a great way to decrease mileage.
  • Finally, carry as much deadweight as possible. Pull all those back issues of Scientific American out of the basement and load them into the trunk. And the backseat. And the floor. Other magazines, newspapers and books also do a dandy job of filling space with weight that fritters away fuel. If you’ve gone digital on the reading front, try filling the car with lumber, concrete blocks or gold bars. Which may come in handy for buying gas in 2016.

For more valuable tips such as these, go to the federal government’s gas mileage tips Web site, www.fueleconomy.gov, and do the opposite of the advice listed. Because, Senator Coburn, they can make the fleet average higher. But they’ll have to pry the gas pedal from my cold lead foot.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Waste Management."

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