It’s a tough time to realize that your auto may be making a more significant contribution to the carbon crisis than you’d like—economic turmoil has made securing a bank loan to purchase a newer, more fuel-efficient model more difficult, and there’s a big question mark over the auto-manufacturing industry in general. But whether you can afford a new hybrid or not, there are simple and cost-effective ways to make your drive more environmentally considerate. Tom Lynch, the director of external affairs for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), and Jack Gregory, owner and technician at Jack’s Auto Service of Wassaic, both weighed in with their advice on how to achieve maximum green for as much green as you’ve got in your wallet.
So much of what you do behind the wheel will affect how much you spend at the pump and how much your vehicle emits into the atmosphere. Driving at a constant speed and avoiding excessive braking not only helps keep you safer on the road, but it also gets you better fuel mileage, says Lynch.
“Gas mileage decreases rapidly for each five miles per hour after you hit sixty miles per hour,” he says. “It can be like paying an additional 30 cents per gallon for gasoline.” Observe the speed limit. If you have a lead foot, try using the cruise control whenever possible to move at a steady pace.
As the winter sets in, Lynch also says to keep in mind that most newer cars are able to warm up within 60 seconds of being started. “Lots of people like to leave their cars idling,” he says. “These days cars warm up very quickly. Twenty years ago you would have to have your car idle, but now you don’t have to do that.” Resist the temptation to wait until the inside of your car is supertoasty before taking off. Reduce idling at start up, and don’t leave the car on while it’s unoccupied.
If you’re in the market to purchase a new car, Lynch says it’s a great time to be a buyer—if you have the means to afford a new car or good enough credit to secure a loan in a tightened banking market. Hybrid cars are the obvious choice for efficient, low-emission vehicles, and purchasing one often comes with federal tax benefits. According to fueleconomy.gov, the owner of a new, two-wheel drive 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid may qualify for a full tax credit of $3,000. Some hybrid tax incentives are phased out after the manufacturer sells a certain amount of the vehicle, so be sure to confirm what the total credit is.
Maintaining Your Eco-Resolution
If your pledge for the new year includes lowering your impact on the environment, your favorite mechanic may be able to help. Following your vehicle’s proper maintenance guidelines can have a tremendous effect on its emissions and fuel mileage, and can also prolong the life of your car, keeping it out of the junkyard.
“Maintenance is the key word,” says Gregory. “If you change the oil every 3,000 miles, keep tire inflation to the manufacturer’s specs, and do your routine maintenance schedule, you’ll get better fuel mileage. Also, keep your transmission up to service and keep the air filtration system clean.”
Start with these basics. Having your tires properly inflated can increase your fuel mileage by up to three percent, says Lynch. Drivers can also opt to replace their tires with low-rolling-resistance (LRR) tires, a choice Consumer Reports says automakers often use to enhance fuel mileage during government fuel economy tests. LRR tires, like Michelin’s HydroEdge, help save gas through a tread pattern that requires less effort from the engine. Make sure to have your car aligned at least once a year too, Gregory says—keeping the wheels straight means less drag, which in turn means better fuel mileage and overall handling.
Lynch also reminds drivers that changing air filters when they’re clogged can get an extra 10 percent out of the gas tank. “[Changing your air filter] will save gas and protect your engine,” he says. “A low-restriction air filter may add an additional 10 percent. It may cost you a couple of more bucks, but it has value on the energy-efficiency side.” Gregory recommends K&N, a filter manufacturer that offers low-restriction options in its product line.
Don’t forget to schedule tune-ups on a regular basis, too. Lynch says these check-ups can increase fuel efficiency by at least 4 percent, and sometimes more—if a technician discovers an issue like a faulty oxygen sensor, the number could be as big as 40 percent. Gregory says that being proactive about part replacements can yield even more benefits. Replacing spark plugs, even if the manufacturer says they’re good for the vehicle’s lifetime, can have a big impact on fuel economy and help the car run cleaner.
Jack’s Auto Service performs a number of services that will enhance fuel mileage and help make your car healthier for the environment. Gregory recommends a fuel injector cleaning treatment every 30,000 miles to achieve these benefits. He says that fuel additives can be used at home to treat gasoline every 3,000 miles, but drivers will notice a bigger difference after a fuel injector cleaning appointment, because his machine hooks directly up to the injectors.
If you’d like to take your mission even further, converting to biofuel is becoming more and more common. Gregory says his shop has frequently worked on old diesel engines that have been altered to run on vegetable oil. “Those systems work pretty well,” he says. Joining a local biofuel organization, like the Hudson Valley Biodiesel Cooperative, can be an educational resource and a way to get involved with a group dedicated to bringing alternative fuel to the area.
The Future of Green Driving
Sustainable vehicles and manufacturing processes are necessities, and many of the big automakers are responding. In early September, USA Today reported that General Motors was following the lead of other manufacturers, like Toyota and Subaru, by pledging to make half of its 181 plants landfill-free through reuse and recycling of 90 percent of its materials. The goal is to accomplish this by the end of 2010, which will be a busy year for the auto giant if all goes according to plan—it’s also the scheduled release date for the Chevy Volt, a vehicle that GM says will use no gas and produce no emissions for a person who uses it to drive less than 40 miles per day. The Volt will achieve this by using a “lithium-ion battery with a gasoline-powered, range-extending engine that drives a generator to provide electric power when you drive beyond the 40-mile battery range,” its page on Chevrolet.com says. However, its fate may lie with the rest of the GM family and its current economic plight.
Lynch is excited about other developments, too. The horizon is brimming with promises of fuel-cell technology and cars that run clean with hydrogen, he says. The prospect of a new energy secretary in Steven Chu, a Nobel physics laureate, is equally motivating—Chu is looking to solve the biofuel conundrum by substituting nonedible biomass, like plant and timber waste, for the edible ingredients typically used to derive ethanol.
With these developments and more coming down the sustainable pipeline, we’re sure to be in for an exciting ride on the road to greener driving.
New York State Energy Research and Development Authority
17 Columbia Circle
Albany, NY 12203
Jack’s Auto Service-Napa AutoCare Center
4228 Route 22
Wassaic, NY 12592
For more green driving tips, visit www.greenercars.org, a site sponsored by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.