A Guide To Fuel Efficient Driving — Part One (2022 update)

Thanks to Covid-induced supply chain issues and Russia’s war with Ukraine, oil prices have jumped to over $100/barrel. That and the dearth of refining capacity (converting crude oil to gasoline/diesel) has pushed the price of gasoline and diesel to record highs. One way to combat these prices is conservation — the less fuel we use, the less fuel we need to pay for, and if everyone uses less fuel then the price of oil will drop. Russia was supplying about 11% of the world’s oil and the lockdowns of 2020 due to Covid-reduced fossil fuel demand by about 20% which brought the price of oil to zero (for a short period). This demonstrates the principle of conservation crashing prices and defeating fuel price inflation.

If every driver on Earth adopted the best practices of this article series then we would cut fuel use by more than Russia was supplying to the world market and would thus bring the price of oil back to sanity. And it would cut carbon pollution, buying us more time to ramp up EV production.

This article was originally on CleanTechnica in December 2020 and is being re-posted with updates.

For most people, they purchase a vehicle and go to the fueling station when the needle is low. However, how one drives can get them many extra kilometers (or miles) from the same fuel, reducing the total amount of fuel consumed and the carbon pollution created (which also incidentally saves money). Each fill-up will cost the same, but you will go longer between fill-ups, meaning more trips/days per tank.

This journey starts with the vehicle purchase if you buy an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicle and not an Electric Vehicle (EV). No matter how well you follow the steps below, a Hummer cannot match the fuel efficiency of a Geo Metro. But even the Hummer can achieve great gains in efficiency. Of course replacing your vehicle in the time of microchip shortages is not always realistic, but a lighter and more fuel efficient vehicle will dramatically cut how much you’re spending on fuel.

Those looking at buying EVs have taken to putting their name on multiple waiting lists, which is not a bad idea, assuming each one that requires a deposit is refundable. An EV will cost 1/4 to 1/8th the cost in electricity compared to what you are currently spending on gasoline/diesel.

If you are looking at purchasing a vehicle, look up your local government’s mileage ratings and choose the most fuel efficient vehicle you can get away with. Buy only as much vehicle as you need, not as much as you can stretch for. Very few people need an SUV — it may be more convenient, but it requires more fuel and will cost much more to own over its lifetime (more expensive tires, brakes, repair parts, insurance, etc.). Many people can get by fine with a compact or midsize vehicle even if they don’t want to face that. Of course, check to see if an EV will fit the bill and is cost competitive. There are more EV models coming out in 2022 and 2023 so if the current offerings don’t meet your needs, don’t give up.

Newer vehicles of the same class often have better efficiency than older vehicles, partly due to age/wear but also because technology has advanced. While we have not yet found a way to defeat the laws of thermodynamics, conservation of energy, and so forth, manufacturers have improved engines with technologies such as variable valve timing, direct injection, idle engine stop, more complex and more speed transmissions/continuously variable transmissions, and more. That said, if you are looking for a new vehicle, definitely consider an EV and remember that it may cost more up front, but, depending on your annual mileage and how long you keep the vehicle, it will often more than pay the difference compared to a gasoline vehicle in fuel savings.

All that said, you likely already have a vehicle and are not currently in the market for a replacement. So, on to the meat of this article: driving for fuel efficiency.

You may have heard of the term hypermiler. People who follow this philosophy seek to maximize their gas mileage and can use extreme and sometimes even unsafe methods to use less fuel. Do not do anything unsafe, even if you can rationalize it.

To start with, you want your vehicle to be in tip-top shape. In the old days of breaker points and carburetors, you had to get frequent tuneups, which entailed manual adjustments to make sure the air fuel mixture and spark/valve timing was as perfect as mechanically possible. With modern fuel injection and computerized timing and engine controls, you don’t need to do as much manually or as frequent maintenance. However, what you do need to do is even more critical. Make sure the spark plugs are within their rated lifetime and gapped correctly. Make sure the fuel injectors are clean, as fuel-injected vehicles need cleaner fuel than carbureted cars. Hence, you should aim to buy your fuel from companies that advertise the cleanliness additives in their fuel, which will also help maximize vehicle mileage (and consider using Top Tier fuel in countries that offer it, which has additional engine cleanliness detergents). Use the grade of engine oil recommended by the manufacturer. Thinner oil can improve economy a bit but may reduce engine life, so is typically not worth it.

Make sure your tires are at the air pressure recommended on the label inside the driver door. You can use a higher pressure for slight additional fuel savings (up to the maximum listed on the tire sidewall), but you will have to endure a harsher ride, which is not good for your suspension. Tire pressure will drop a few psi in winter and rise a few psi in summer. Check your tires monthly if you don’t have a tire pressure monitor built in. If you do, check its warning threshold — some will wait until a tire is very low before presenting a warning. Nitrogen in the tires has some benefits, but is not required. It holds pressure longer, so if you don’t check it frequently, it saves some work. Also, if you don’t drive a lot of kilometers per year, it slows down the aging of the tires somewhat — you may go a bit longer before the tires dry out from age. If your tires tend to wear out from tread wear, then the longevity advantage evaporates.

Also if your tires die from age instead of mileage, then periodic use of tire shine with UV protectant may extend their life.

Of course you want to stay on top of fluid and belt replacement intervals so that components don’t wear out prematurely and cause a large repair bill. This does not help efficiency much but does improve vehicle reliability and expected lifespan. Your owner’s manual should have this information. Don’t skimp on preventative maintenance — for example, a timing belt that breaks on an interference engine or worn out automatic transmission fluid destroying the transmission are very expensive yet preventable. Skipped maintenance is false economy.

When was the last time you replaced your engine’s air filter? Most can be DIYed and you can buy them cheap from the dealership or a third party. Fancy aftermarket filters are mostly gimmicks, and an OEM filter will do the job fine as long as it is replaced when necessary. Most cars will have a maintenance schedule that indicates replacement intervals for this. Don’t confuse the engine air filter with the cabin air filter.

Your engine’s Mass Air Flow (MAF) sensor and oxygen sensor(s) tell the computer how much fuel to add for optimal combustion. If they are not operating correctly then the air/fuel mixture will be off and this often increases fuel consumption. Some MAF sensors can be cleaned with electronics cleaner spray, though verify this for your car model before DIYing it. As for oxygen sensors, your car has some built-in diagnostic equipment which can throw a check engine light. If this light is on then determine the reason (there are dozens of causes that cause it to illuminate) and fix the problem in order to maximize your fuel economy.

Keeping your vehicle exterior clean (especially in winter) maximizes its aerodynamics. Waxing may also help a few percent on the highway. And there are some rims that can improve aerodynamics slightly. Avoid aftermarket exterior accoutrements that change the exterior shape of the vehicle or add to it. Everything from grille guards to spoilers affect aerodynamics, and despite the claims, usually not in a positive way.

Tires also affect mileage to a small degree, and you can buy fuel-saving models. Some have less grip than standard tires, yet counterintuitively not all fuel-saving tires have less grip as some have altered rubber compositions and optimized sidewall springiness. Google can often help find the rolling resistance of any tires you are considering as replacements or fuel-saving tires in your vehicle’s size. Many tires now claim to save fuel, so try to look up any testing done to backstop the claim as its likely the savings are marginal if they are not purposely designed to save fuel.

Fuel efficient tires can increase your mileage by 2-5% on average compared to standard summers/all season tires. And even more compared to performance tires, track tires, all terrain tires, and snow tires.

You need much more fuel to drive through viscous solids and liquids, and hard rain, snow, gravel, mud and more will appreciably increase your fuel consumption.

Higher octane fuel improves mileage in high compression engines. However, this is mostly in performance cars. There are some higher compression non-performance vehicles that gain a slight improvement from it, but nowhere near enough to justify its higher cost. However, many manufactures add extra cleanliness additives to their higher octane fuels and advertise this, trying to muddy the waters and get more people to buy fuel their car does not really need. Save your money and use the octane of fuel specified in the owner’s manual.

Stay tuned for Part Two — Driving Behaviors.

The standard disclaimers apply. All advice is for informational purposes only — CleanTechnica is not responsible for any damages caused by inaccurate information, and the user assumes all risks of following any advice provided.


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