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“PETROL SOON TO COST AS MUCH AS YOUR PINT!” read an alarmist tabloid headline of a couple of decades or so ago.
Well, if you could find me a garage dispensing a gallon of fuel for the price of a beer these days, I’d shower you with all my worldly goods and offer to have your babies, or at least start a few off, leaving a false name and address as I get “me kecks” back on (men need not apply for this position).
I don’t want to get embroiled into the “UK motorists pay the highest price for petrol under Labour” debate, for the simple reason that high fuel tax is here to stay, neither major party has done anything to reduce it, and unless you are fully acquainted with the entire tax regime, of, say France, then comparing a litre “here” for a litre “over there” is irrelevant.
Besides which, petrol is a finite resource, its use pollutes the atmosphere and is a health risk, particularly in the field of respiration. You could argue that it SHOULD cost a lot under these circumstances, since we are, in effect paying a licence to use a “poison”.
Whatever you think of the Chancellor, it therefore makes extreme good sense, both economic and environmental, to use as little petrol as possible. There are of course several ways in which this could be achieved. Below are a few of my suggestions.
THOSE PESKY SHORT JOURNEYS
Bear in mind that it is the short journeys with relatively cold engines that cause a disproportionate percentage of local pollution. I’ve heard it said that the “school run” accounts for 10% of traffic-generated pollution. Another little publicised fact is that the air quality inside a car in a traffic jam is worse than that outside, so if you thought you were doing your children’s health a favour by running them down the road to school, think again. I realise that in the case of schools with a wide or rural catchment area, then to do otherwise wouldn’t be practical, but those of us who live in towns, with the school half a mile away, could start to address this. After all, as the Countryside Campaigners are quick to point out, we outnumber them. It therefore follows that we can have the greatest effect on the environment, for good OR bad.
A cold engine will be running on choke, or its equivalent, which is, in itself inefficient, as extra “neat” petrol is added to the normal mixture of fuel and air, called the fuel/air ratio. This even happens in hot weather, as long as the engine has not been used for a long time.
Diesel users have no need to be smug here, as anyone who has seen a cold diesel started will attest. Well, that’s just the point - you CAN’T see a cold diesel being started sometimes, thanks to the smokescreen being emitted from the back! Before the Citroen BX Tdi Owner’s Club lynches me, I would point out that not all diesels are like this, but they do add their own unique form of pollution to the air in the form of “particulates” – I think they mean soot!
Anyway, all cars will go through some sort of inefficient start-up process, every time they are used from cold. In the case of a longer journey, this is a necessary evil, which gets better after five or ten minutes, but as the government-sponsored TV commercials exhort us, walking or cycling to the corner shop to buy a Sunday paper would be so much more healthy all round AND money saving. “Couch potatoes” could even decide not to bother at all – well done guys, Britain is proud of its slobs, and needs more like you! Another approach would be to combine this short trip with a longer one, stopping off to buy the paper whilst off on that other weekend religious experience, out-of-town shopping! However, out-of-town shopping brings its own pollution problems, but killing two birds with one stone would be a start.
My current part-time work with schools in a neighbouring borough leads me to plot a new road route nearly every week. Unfortunately, to get to the Richmond area from the Hounslow area has one limiting factor called The Thames, limiting my fording of it to either of Kew or Richmond Bridges. The fact that they want me to start at 9.15 am doesn’t help either, as the “mini rush hour” created by the school run is only then subsiding.
My own car has a fuel computer, which can be reset before every journey to allow for the fuel consumption, and average speed to be calculated. What is most surprising, even in the most dense stop-start conditions, is that I can even achieve more than 30 m.p.g. at all, let alone exceed it by 5-10 m.p.g. However, what is most interesting is that the route which FEELS the most inefficient by being longer, is in fact more fuel efficient, to such an extent, that not only is the m.p.g. reading higher, but when you come to calculate how much actual fuel has been used, it really is less.
For example, route “a” which is 5.4 miles, gives me 32 m.p.g., whilst route “b” which is 6 miles gives me close on 40 m.p.g. Therefore, despite the disparity in route length, “b” costs me 0.15 gallons compared to “a’s” 0.17. Ok, so the saving is 2% of a gallon, but multiply that by 2 for the return journey, and by the number of times I make that journey, and it starts to add up to some real savings.
On a larger scale, for instance, my recent trek to the Scottish borders, getting up early enough to leave home in West London and be through the Birmingham area before 8 a.m. helps to conserve fuel, since a car sitting in a jam at the confluence of the M’s 5 and 6 is achieving Zero m.p.g., and polluting the good people of Birmingham’s air for no reason. I have only ever achieved a smooth transit through this area by employing this tactic – at all other times, IT WILL be congested.
I have ceased to use the various road check services, since on any long journey, you can guarantee that at least one scheduled and probably one un-scheduled delay will occur. If you pay heed to Delete or information telephone numbers, you’d never go out! Too much information can get very depressing.
A SLIPPERY CAR FIT FOR PURPOSE
Assuming that a large part of your journey will involve passing through still air quickly (we hope!), it make sense to check that your car is offering as little resistance to being moved as possible. Correct tyre pressures relative to the load carried are vital, both to fuel economy, general wear and tear, and safety. I wonder just how many people give their tyres anything other than a cursory “nope, they’re all still up” glance. Carry as much luggage as possible inside the vehicle – a roof rack carries its own fuel economy premium just by being there. Loaded badly, it’s even worse, and if you find yourself putting the rack on, just to squeeze that bit extra on board, maybe a rethink is needed. Does Junior REALLY have to take his ghetto blaster and X-Box with him? If on a touring holiday, the rack will no doubt stay there once you’ve unloaded the car, costing you dearly over a two-week period of motoring in the Dordogne. Likewise, carrying bikes is problematical. On the roof, they are exposed to the wind, but at least they are end on, whereas carried across the back of the car, they are out of the main blast, but sideways to what air does flow over the tailgate. I’ve got a folding bike in the boot, so I’m not really qualified to comment on which is best. At least if you’re carrying bikes, then by implication, you won’t be burning petrol all the time once at your destination!
When choosing new tyres, try to get those that claim to be eco-friendly, with ensuing fuel savings. Tyres that improves m.p.g.? Yes, even though radial-ply tyres, now almost universal, are more compliant and flexible than the older stiffer cross-plies, there is still some room for improvement. Some brands of tyre now claim to decrease the car’s resistant to being propelled, with ensuing fuel savings of around 6%. This may be done by improving sidewall flexibility, or by using different rubber compositions. Do check that any different rubber compound doesn’t carry a reduced grip penalty, or at least be forewarned. The payback on such a saving will be quite long, but if you are changing your tyres anyway, why not give it a try?
As for the fuel penalty imposed by running air conditioning, as you speed down to Nice, you may like to bear this in mind. According to my fuel computer, using a/c at 60 M.P.H. costs me 10% more fuel, compared to a car with its windows closed, without the a/c running. However, who would drive with the windows closed in these hot conditions? Therefore the penalty is not so great whilst cruising at speed, because a car with no a/c and its windows open is not as aerodynamic, and the comparative loss from using a/c is more like 5%. You also benefit from a more hushed “office” which may lead to your driving less frenetically.
Of course, at low speeds, a/c really does start to cost you, and I try to use good old fashioned outside air until I’m getting uncomfortable. Since the system stays cold for a minute or so, why not switch it off a couple of miles from journey’s end
BUT I THOUGHT TECHNOLOGY WAS GOING TO BE THE ANSWER TO EVERYTHING
Yes, so did I. According to “Tomorrow’s World”, we’d all have chimneybreast sized slim-line TV screens now costing £125. Well, they got the size bit right, but stick a couple of noughts on the price.
It has to be said that technology has created a lot of potential for fuel efficiency, but in the US case, this saving has been squandered on the purchase of ever more powerful cars, the “recreational vehicle” being a case in point. We in Europe have no need to be smug either. In the 70’s, when a Ford Cortina had a 1600 c.c. engine pushing out 70-odd brake horse power, fuel consumption would have been around 35 m.p.g.
Now what do we have? 2-litre Mondeos, pushing out well over 100 b.h.p., and still capable of similar consumption. All very impressive, but in the meantime, Mother Nature is still coughing her lungs out.
To be fair, technology has advanced over the years I’ve owned cars. Many of the retro-fit devices from the 70’s, are now de-rigueur. An example is the engine-cooling fan. 30 years ago, cars had cooling fans driven directly off the fan belt. Yes, that’s why it was called that. These were totally indiscriminate with their favours, blasting air at radiators that were quite happy sitting in the flow of passing air generated from the road speed. This lead to over-cooling and unnecessary power drain from the engine.
Then came the thermostatic electric fan. I remember buying one and fitting it to my MG Midget, saying goodbye to the cheap nasty steel pressing that had been soaking up 5% of the engine power at speed. Nowadays, all cars have these, and they can be heard cutting in and out in traffic jams, only drawing power as and when needed.
Fuel efficiency took a slight dive with the introduction of the catalyst since these had a slight detrimental effect on exhaust flow. However, to remain efficient at cleaning exhaust gas, they require a car to be constantly monitored by an engine-management system, which in turn means that the car stays in tune of its own accord longer, so overall, the effect was probably somewhere around neutral.
WHAT ABOUT GADGETS?
Ah, yes, “Run Your Car On Water – Just send £100 and We’ll Show You How”. Fortunately, the days of such wild claims seem to be over, but a perusal of Google for “fuel economy device” still comes up with an interesting array, some more convincing than others.
MAGNETS – No you don’t hitch yourself to the truck in front with a magnetic grappling iron, (I think I’ve just invented “Stobart-ing”) these are supposed to be clamped to the fuel line, like those cylindrical efforts that many computer leads have. The basic crux of the argument seems to be that fuel molecules are untidy little buggers that don’t like being burned too eagerly.
Somehow, passing them through a strong magnetic field is intended to “tidy them up” so that they enter the sacrificial altar of the upper cylinder in a more compliant mood and burn more efficiently. I’m not sure whether there is anything in this – to be affected by magnetism, I thought the medium had to have some kind of metal content, but like those people who swear by copper bracelets for rheumatism, maybe it’s technology I don’t understand, even if it does work. What I would say is, if these people are charlatans, there is a lot of them, and maybe a consumer watchdog should be doing something about them. Surely, if it were that easy, wouldn’t car manufacturers be falling over themselves to fit a £30 magnet to their cars? I couldn’t find anything like independent data, e.g. from the DTI test centre to back the claims, which is at variance with the next device I’m about to describe.
Gas-Flow Modifier – This is my title, not theirs. There is one device, which I feel earns a bit more respect by having extensive DTI test results to back their claims. The Ecotek CB-26P. This is a small one-way air flow valve, which it is claimed will lower polluting emissions using “swirl technology”* to ensure that more fuel gets burned rather than wasted, and improve power and fuel economy. Presumably, in the case of the latter pair, this would not be at the same time.
If their website can convince me that it will suit my car, and if I feel that £70 is a fair amount to part with for a 10+% fuel saving, then I’ll get one and write about it!
* Swirl technology? Sounds like a Dyson to me!
On the subject of “swirl technology”, and Mr Dyson’s exceedingly good vacuum cleaners, I’ve often felt that his “cyclone” chamber could be used to get the “particulates” out of diesel exhaust, but of course the resulting need to empty a bin full of potentially carcinogenic waste raises other health and safety issues, similar to those for handling photo copy toner.
HYBRIDS - The ultimate fuel-saving gadget that technology has so far come up with, is the hybrid car itself, which, as its name implies, is part electric and part internal combustion. It will probably be a long while before all-electric cars become common, let alone the norm. So much still needs to be done - lighter batteries, improved range, a nationwide infrastructure for “on the hoof” recharging etc. Until this can be achieved, electric vehicles are doomed to remain the domain of milk deliveries, Harrods and electricity companies trying to show their Green credentials (oh yes, and that nutter in Ealing with a converted Triumph Herald).
However, there is a use for the electric motor in current day motoring, witness the hybrid car. I don’t think anyone would argue with the concept that most cars use nothing like their full power output whilst cruising. Maximum brake horse power (b.h.p.) is only needed to “lead-boot” it away in the traffic light Grand Prix.
For instance a car with a generous b.h.p, say, a sporty saloon with around 180 of the little buggers, probably only needs about 60 of them to maintain a steady cruise at the motorway limit. So, if it had a 60 b.h.p motor, it could maintain that speed, but of course its vital 0-60 time would probably be measured in tens of seconds rather than the single digit seconds for which it was bought!
Where a hybrid wins out is in providing the car with a merely adequate, and therefore efficient engine for cruising, and boosting this output with an electric motor for acceleration purposes. In case you didn’t know, there are two cars already on the market, the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius.
In the styling stakes, the Honda wins hands down, as it is a sleek two-seater with half faired-in rear wheels, rather like the old Citroen/Maserati SM for anyone who remembers those quirkily beautiful cross-breeds.
The Prius, on the other hand, is an exercise in how NOT to style an exciting new design concept. It is a four-door saloon of indifferent frumpy design and with curiously undersized wheels for the family car that it is. The overall effect is that of a Ford Orion on Mini wheels. Styling considerations aside, both cars come at the hybrid concept from different standpoints.
The Honda is the simplest to grasp. It has a small (1000 c.c.) engine mated to a conventional clutch and gearbox. When you want to accelerate anything other than gently, this is aided by an electric motor of advanced design and efficiency. Once the car has reached its required cruising speed, the electric motor cuts back out. The charge for the motor comes from a small lightweight rechargeable battery pack which unfortunately take up the space where seats 3 and 4 could have been, and which takes spare power to recharge itself from the engine whilst cruising or when idling in a jam. If you were to attempt one too many accelerations with flat batteries, an indicator tells you not to be so silly!
The Prius, despite what I said about its appearance, is a tad more complex (thank God it’s a Toyota!). This car has a step-less (CVT) automatic transmission and by preference can use its electric motor to pull away at normal speed up to about 30 m.p.h. It can be made to creep for miles in a traffic jam without so much as a fart from its exhaust pipe. Then, when the electric motor is about to throw in the towel, the 1500 c.c combustion engine gets started, and stays in the frame all the way up to top speed. Once cruising, it starts to replenish its battery pack from surplus petrol engine power, like the Honda. Of course, if its traction battery (not the one you start it with) is nearly flat, the engine will cut back in to give a priority to bringing the charge back up to scratch.
Operating the brakes brings a new concept into play. The power that is normally wasted when braking, (as the car converts momentum into hot brake pads), is saved, at least partially. The motor, in a Jeckyll-and-Hyde style turn around of fortunes, becomes a dynamo charging its batteries from the car’s forward motion. Harder braking and final braking to a halt still employ conventional friction brakes. Thus the energy invested when accelerating is partially recycled when braking. The railways have been using regenerative braking for years, but this is the first volume production of this concept for the road.
The Prius’ operation lends itself much more readily to town driving, whilst the Insight is more about getting the ultimate in m.p.g. on a long journey. Both of these are, to a European eye, full size cars, yet thanks to the clever use of technology, they are also capable of using no more fuel than a Smart!
Of course, none of this does anything other than delay the inevitable depletion of oil. I’ve heard it stated that the idea is to buy time to allow for “hydrogen-based” energy to take over where hydrocarbons left off.
SISTERS (AND BROTHERS) ARE DOIN’ IT FOR THEMSELVES
All of the foregoing is all very fine and worthy, but the greatest piece of energy saving technology is between our own ears.
Governments can only ever offer “negative incentives” to reduce road use, road pricing being the current hot cookie, and don’t forget the “polluter pays” element to our taxation system.
As per bloody usual, it’ll be down to us to provide the solution.
Only we can decide NOT to make that short journey, or to combine it with another trip, preferably over a well-chosen route. Trying wherever possible to patronise High Street shops would be a start, leaving The Trafford Centre, Bluewater, and “Merry Hell” for mugs.
We have it in our own hands (or rather, right foot) to drive sparingly, anticipating hold ups, and turning off our engines at railway crossings. I’ve lost count of the times a car has slashed past me on the M6, only to find, 20 minutes later, that the car is only five ahead of me in a jam, having spent more fuel getting there, owing to high speed, and then having stood longer in the jam at zero m.p.g. If it weren’t a crass waste of the Earth’s resources, it’d be funny!
We can decide to get a smaller car if we want, suited to our needs rather than status in life – the company car culture still has a lot to answer for in this country, despite recent tax changes.
Heaven forbid, we could always GET THE BUS! I’ve never been a huge fan of public transport after commuting on the Underground for 31 years, and it’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate buses again. My local one in west London gives me direct access, albeit after a 45 minute ride to the excellent shopping centre in Kingston, south west London. The maximum flat fare is the most they can charge me, and I don’t have to queue/pay to park when I get there. Believe me, with Christmas coming that’s no mean advantage!
Well, I’ve covered some pretty diverse ground here for something that started out as fuel saving tips, but hopefully, you don’t think this is just a load of hot air - if only hot air was all that came out of car exhausts!
Very wise advice, even in these days when fuel is becoming slightly 'cheaper'. I've recently tried simply changing my driving style - no more 'middle-aged-racer' acceleration; anticipating junctions, coasting down hills etc, and have increased mpg by about 20-25%. Paul
SNOWY1976 29.03.2005 16:13
Superb review must of taken ages to write it, well worth it thou--Adam
RCFC87 25.08.2004 19:02
Great advice here - as a new driver I'll do my best to follow it - Nic :D