Potential Savings – $500 to $3000 per year

 (Depending on the car you now drive, your annual mileage, your mix of urban and highway driving, and an alternative choice you might make, you could save between $500 and $3000 per year)

 Canadians use a great deal of energy. Half of this is used in cars. If we are to reduce our personal energy consumption, we cannot neglect our cars.

 The Obvious A modest car costs $7000 per year to own & drive

 The most obvious thing anyone can do to reduce the amount of fuel used in any car is to drive less. Clearly, not to be taken lightly, but living close to your workplace offers another very valuable advantage besides reducing fuel consumption. Reducing the time spent in traffic gridlock must be at least as valuable as anything saved on fuel.

 It is worth calculating how much car commuting costs, and considering how your life might change if that money was spent on buying a home closer to work. Don’t forget to add the additional equity you would accumulate in a (possibly) more costly home closer to work.

 Our Vehicles

 Comparing Natural Resources Canada “EnerGuide” 1993 & 2003 vehicle booklets, it is clear that North American manufacturers have done little to reduce energy consumption of their cars & trucks, although there have been improvements by offshore-based companies.

 As consumers, we have made matters worse. Over this decade, we have shown a strong preference for minivans, SUVs, and pick-ups – now over half of all vehicles sold! Mid-size cars (Chevrolet Impala or Ford Taurus) use about 20% less fuel than a mini-van or mid-size SUV, and much less than a pick-up or large SUV.

 As a result of our choices, over the past 10 years private vehicles – energy consumption has increased 10%. Fuel used in cars is down by 15%, while light trucks (including SUVs & minivans) have burned 85% more fuel!

 Manufacturers promote SUVs, pick-ups & minivans because their profit margin on them is thousands of dollars. On smaller cars it drops below $500! We have also bought in to the idea that large vehicles are safer than small ones. While this may be true in a collision, tall, heavy vehicles are less manoeuvrable, easier to roll over and harder to control in a skid than small ones. That makes them much more likely to lose control!

 A recent book – “High & Mighty” – claims that these vehicles suffer 90% of all rollovers, and that rollovers are very likely to be fatal! The author claims that pick-ups and SUVs only protect you where the vehicle remains upright, but often kill the occupants when they roll over. Collisions with pick-ups and SUVs are also 7 times more likely to kill the occupants of cars than are collisions with other cars.

 Vehicle Size Weight reduction estimated to save 7% on fuel

 Many of us are unaware that there are other types of cars but those sold here. For over half a century, we have been hostages to automotive styles set by the major U.S. manufacturers. North Americans are convinced that large, heavy vehicles are better “value for money”. This is usually expressed: “I feel safer in a large vehicle.” or “I like a better view of the road.”

 This attitude costs us dearly in fuel economy. A physically bulky car experiences more wind resistance, using more fuel at speed. A heavy vehicle needs a large, powerful engine. Each time it accelerates, a large amount of fuel is used, increasing consumption in urban traffic.

 In Europe, vehicles are smaller than here; in Japan, they are much smaller. Since Europeans and Japanese drivers are as wealthy as we are, their small cars are not “stripped” – they are loaded with features; including built-in hands-free cell phones, trip computers with built-in global positioning and map technology, never seen in small cars here. Even the tiniest vehicles can be luxurious. Here, buyers must buy a larger vehicle to get them. Europeans prize agile handling and the ability to park in tight spots. That, and expensive fuel has created a demand for modest sized luxury.

 Engine Diesel power could save 30-50% of fuel cost

 There are also mechanical differences in the motor vehicles available to buyers in North America, Europe, and Japan. The Honda Civic is a good example. The same basic car is sold worldwide. In Japan it comes with a 1.1 litre engine. In Europe it has a 1.3 litre engine, with a 1.7 litre option. In North America, only the 1.7 litre is used. Europeans can also buy it with a 1.7 litre turbo-diesel, further reducing fuel bills.

 North Americans get the largest engine and Japan gets the smallest. Europeans like “athletic” cars, but also good fuel economy. They get a mid-size engine, any power deficit made up by opting for manual transmission (about 90% of all Eurocars). Since automatics absorb 10%-15% of engine output, manuals get good acceleration and good fuel economy.

 Almost every European model is also available as a diesel. Today, these are powerful, but also travel 30% farther on a litre of fuel than gasoline equivalents. In urban traffic, diesels can go twice as far! In North America, only VW and Mercedes offer diesel power, and not on all models. In Austria, ¾ of all cars sold are diesels. In France and Germany, ½ of cars are diesels. That is the power of the market. Europeans pay $2 – $4 for a litre of fuel while we moan about paying $0.80. In the U.S.A., diesel fuel is 5-10% more expensive than gasoline, discouraging sales and accounting for their tiny market penetration of 0.1%

 Transmission For $1000 spent on fuel, an automatic costs $100

 Most North American vehicles are automatics. Many are not available with manual transmissions. While convenient, the automatic costs more to buy, and wastes fuel. Almost all automatic transmissions have a torque converter to replace the friction clutch.

 The torque converter is an energy hog. It is a pair of turbines spinning in a liquid-filled doughnut-shaped compartment. One is powered by the motor. The other is made to spin by the moving liquid. At idle, the driven turbine is easily stopped, allowing the vehicle to halt without stalling. As engine speed rises, the driven turbine follows, moving the vehicle.

 Churning the transmission fluid generates heat, absorbing 10%-15% of engine output. An oil cooler is needed to keep it cool. Modern torque converters “lock up” at a certain speed, saving fuel when cruising. However, in traffic, the torque converter must be allowed to work (slip). Many European automatics now use 5 speeds to reduce the need for slip.

 Manual gearboxes also waste some energy through friction in the gears and bearings. This loss is small, and manual gearboxes need no oil cooler. A new type of automatic transmission with a computer-operated friction clutch is now appearing. This is mated to a computer-operated gearbox, or to a “continuously variable” transmission using variable diameter pulleys, like those on a snowmobile. With no torque converter, this type of automatic can be as efficient as a manual gearbox (but less fun)!

 Four-wheel drive, adding weight & friction from moving parts is another fuel waster. Expect a 5%-10% economy penalty for 4WD. Small, light vehicles tend to bear larger penalties for 4WD than heavier pick-up trucks.

 Tires For $1000 fuel dollars, tires could save $20

 Tires are a part of vehicle fuel economy. Although rolling resistance only accounts for a small percentage of a vehicle’s fuel consumption, they are attracting attention as one way to improve fuel consumption. The first step was the radial tire, invented by Michelin in the 1930s. Almost all tires are radials today. About 15 years ago, Michelin (again) developed rubber compounds that generate less heat when flexed. Wasting less energy, they give cooler running and contribute to longer tire life.

 Look for these “low rolling resistance” tires, now available in many brands. They will save 2%-3% on fuel, sacrificing nothing in handling, grip, or longevity. Check Consumer Reports for information.

 Some people buy wide tires with “aggressive” tread designs. These usually have higher rolling resistance than smoother designs, often with poor grip in snow. Wide tires have more rolling resistance than narrow ones, and wear more rapidly!

 Air Resistance Aerodynamic design is estimated to save 2% on fuel

 Many manufacturers pay close attention to aerodynamics, ensuring that their vehicles slip through the air as smoothly as possible. Makers of “sport-utility” vehicles ignore it. No matter what you drive, you waste a lot of fuel by leaving a roof rack or luggage carrier on your car when you no longer need it. Take off the roof rack after use, and pocket the savings!

 If your car is an aerodynamic model (“Offshore” manufacturers tend to pay more attention to this than domestic brands), at highway speeds it is more economical to use the air conditioning than to drive with an open window. At city speeds, the open window will be cheaper.

 Some cars have plastic covers under the engine compartment to smooth airflow. Check that your car still has its “invisible” aerodynamic equipment.

 “Dress-up” items are often added to sport-utility vehicles and pick-up trucks. Examples are running boards, “bush bars”, flared fenders, or mock roll-over bars festooned with lights. All increase wind resistance and fuel consumption. Although the “official” estimate of the aerodynamic effect on fuel consumption suggests a 2% improvement, today’s commuters drive at well over the legal limit, where the wind resistance is far larger (below)!

 Driving Style

 Driving technique has a great influence on fuel consumption. Rapid acceleration to the next traffic light wastes fuel with little effect on journey time. On the other hand, “funereal” dawdling is also inefficient because the vehicle spends more time in lower gears. Most cars produce their best fuel economy when driven briskly enough to reach top gear quickly.

 On the highway, high speed burns fuel. Aerodynamic drag (wind resistance) varies as the square of velocity, so driving at 125km/h will burn about twice as much fuel as at 90km/h. (This steep relationship isn’t totally true because other types of drag are involved, including rolling resistance, friction in the engine and wheel bearings, etc.) Also, certain “wind cheating” designs start with very low drag (eg: the Honda Insight). However, at speeds above 100km/h, aerodynamic drag dominates fuel consumption.

 Varying speed minute by minute also consumes fuel unnecessarily. Each acceleration burns fuel. If you accelerate (say) from 80km/h to 100km/h and back once each minute, in an hour you will have burned the fuel required to accelerate your car from a standstill to 60km/h 20 times – over and above the fuel needed to maintain a steady 95km/h. Use cruise control (if available) for best economy.

 Driving slowly greatly improves fuel consumption, particularly in pick-up trucks and sport-utilities with poor aerodynamics. Less aggressive driving, leaving space between you and the car in front, helps to reduce the need for braking. This practice also helps to reduce the likelihood of accidents!

 Fuel consumptions come from National Resources Canada 2002. Unfortunately, these are optimistic. The Highway test averages 77km/h over 16km with a top speed of 96km/h (on a dynamometer) – speeds few Canadian motorists limit themselves to! The City test averages 32km/h over 12km with 16 complete stops. Both tests are at summer temperature! It is hard to duplicate these in a gasoline vehicle – impossible in winter. Diesels come close to their “official” fuel consumptions. Count on 10-20% higher fuel use than “official” data for gasoline vehicles.

 NOTE: I recently drove a Toyota Prius from Barrie to Ottawa and back via Bancroft and Arnprior with a friend. This was on 2-lane roads where 80km/h was reasonable – very like the official test. Over 1000km, the Prius averaged a very good 5.3 litres per 100km. I had also driven the same route (with 4 people) in a 1994 VW Golf diesel. The Golf used 4.5 litres per 100km. On the other hand, the Prius burned just 4.8 litres per 100km in Ottawa’s heavy traffic – far less than even a diesel vehicle would use.

 North Americans drive their vehicles about twice as far each year as Europeans do. Despite our high annual mileages, there is a perverse trend for us to buy gas guzzlers, while Europeans design and buy fuel efficient cars. In 2002, three small European cars were rated at 3 litres per 100km (~90mpg)! Many models give 4 litres per 100km (70mpg)! Meanwhile, half of us now drive an SUV, minivan, or full-sized pickup. All these are rare in Europe where fuel costs over $2 per litre.

 My own car is a VW Jetta TDI averaging 5.5 litres per 100km on fuel which has averaged $0.65 per litre. I drive 20,000km per year, costing $700 in fuel. The same car with a gasoline engine would use 9 litres per 100km (31mpg), costing about $1200. With comparable performance, why not choose the diesel? One year would cover the price differential. After that,you would be smiling all the way to the bank – and be offered a hefty premium on eventual sale or trade in.

 This is not to say suggest that all drivers should buy VW diesels, but raises the question why GM, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota, and others refuse to offer us the smooth, clean, quiet diesels they offer in their European models. Interestingly, 70% of all luxury vehicles sold in Europe are diesels! Although few diesels are available here, we should let dealers and manufacturers know that we are interested.

 The annual cost of fuel as estimated above is substantial, and most drivers use more fuel than the “official” figures suggest. This is because traffic is heavier than the urban test tries to mimic, while highway driving tends to be much faster than the highway test calls for. Since economical vehicles are being made elsewhere in the world, many by subsidiaries of General Motors, Daimler-Chrysler, and Ford, we should demand them. 


 Our high fuel consumption enriches people in distant lands. Some of these are brutal regimes (Iraq, Iran, Sudan), or deny opportunity to women (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates). Many Canadians would not normally care to do business with these countries – except that they supply us with petroleum.


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