The thing about fuel economy: More to it than you may think

The three most talked about topics in the current news cycle are: weather; public health and/or public safety; and the economy. These topics can be further divided into sub-categories: Floods, droughts and heat for weather; reproductive rights, and COVID-19 and the monkey pox viruses related to public health and/or public safety; and where the economy is concerned, some of the more profiled associated sub-categories are inflation, barer grocery store shelves, supply chain issues and the cost and availability of gasoline.

As an aside, take the COVID-19 pandemic as a public health emergency, for example. The SARS CoV-2 contagion could very well be the least understood of all major communicable diseases; regarding the treatment thereof perhaps it’s ditto. More will benefit as more is learned.

It’s no different with how I feel about climate change. We become that much more informed each time we learn something factually new.

Okay, so in terms of cost and availability of automobile fuel, an item covered regularly in current – and recent – news is a subject that gets people’s attention because the purchase of such, for many households, creates a real financial burden: it can eat up a good chunk of the family budget. I’m confident this is something most households would rather not have to deal with.

Which is why I want to allot space today to discussing motor vehicle fuel economy and how air quality can be impacted by this.

Before getting to the meat of the matter, I find it helpful to talk about the development of the automobile and of its use in the United States.

The road behind

Automobile development in America began during the late 19th century. Almost immediately, seemingly, there was a battle for dominance. The tug-of-war was between the gasoline-driven conveyance and the electrically-propelled motor vehicle. We all know how that played out.

Furthermore, as time marched ahead and the progress odometer rolled over from the 19th to the 20th century, cars saw marked improvement – to which the assembly line played a large and integral part. Improvements were realized in style, comfort, quality, maintainability and, yes, durability and versatility.

Concomitant with the development and use, meanwhile, was dispensed fuel availability. As time rolled ahead sales outlets for these power vehicles became a dime a dozen. Also keeping pace, at least for a while, anyway, were the thoroughfares on which the so-called “tin lizzies” traveled, dirt roads first, followed by plank roads and evolving, ultimately, into what are driven upon today.

A turning point

Car advancement has been anything but static. In fact, it could be argued even that in that development’s evolutionary journey an inflection point has been reached: that is, the so-far slow but nevertheless steady transition from gasoline- to electric-driven propulsion. It is not the transition itself, but the speed and dynamics of it that warrants our paying close attention, especially in this – the climate change – age.

So, what say we turn our attention to fuel economy, indeed an important construct to overall operation and improved air quality?

There is no question the number of miles that an automobile can travel on a gallon of gas has increased, a good thing considering the auto’s fuel-capacity or -storage limitations. What’s more, with distances between gas stations along the highway being comparatively few and far between (the distance between such could be hundreds of miles), a car getting reasonably good gasoline economy coupled with a high capacity on-vehicle fuel-storage capability, for all intents and purposes allows for worry-free travel along these thoroughfares. The greater the vehicle fuel economy, the longer it can be driven for a given size gas tank.

But, there is another benefit also. The more efficiently the fuel is burned, the better the vehicle’s performance, the more money that can be saved and the fewer pollutants there are coming out of the car’s exhaust.

The numbers: What they say

A car having a 20 gallon gas tank filled to capacity and a 20 miles per gallon average fuel economy rating will go 400 miles total. On the other hand, an auto with a 15 gallon tank filled to capacity and a 25 miles per gallon fuel rating can go nearly as far – 375 miles in all – the key difference here being the amount of tailpipe emissions left behind in the air. Whereas with car number 1 with its 20 mpg fuel economy rating will dump 100 carbon pounds into the surrounding air over that 400-mile distance, with car number 2, the one getting 25 mpg, over the 375 miles traveled, its carbon output is 75 pounds or 80 pounds released over 400 miles.

What’s important to note is that for every gallon of gasoline burned, the amount of carbon released per gallon is 5 pounds and, in addition, it is not uncommon for American motorists to log a total of 8,000 miles or more in a year’s time. Another key consideration to keep in mind: for that 400-mile distance, in the case of vehicle number 1, 400 gallons of gas is consumed, while in the case of vehicle number 2, needed is 320 gallons which means that 2,000 pounds and 1,600 pounds of carbon, respectively, is exhaust-pipe-spewed into the air. Over time, and with the number of internal-combustion-engine-powered automobiles logging better than 3 trillion miles annually, the savings from driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, which by now should be glaringly obvious, really do add up, in the economical and environmental senses, alike.

– Alan Kandel

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This post was last updated on Sept. 1, 2022 at 7:48 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.