We Americans are in love with our cars. We use them for transportation, courtship and entertainment. They mean power, independence and beauty. Unfortunately, they deplete fossil fuels and cause pollution. The car, which has helped to form American culture, may also speed its decay.
Remember, environmental deterioration is determined both by the number of people and by the resources each person uses. Americans tend to use much more than our share of resources. Therefore, we ought to limit the assets we consume as well as limit the growth of our population.
When gasoline explodes in a car’s engine, it releases water vapor and carbon dioxide. Although harmless in the shortrun, the gradual buildup of CO2 over the past century has been a major cause of global warming. Since few people are willing to give up driving completely, we should look at ways to limit its bad effects.
There are many steps that you can take to decrease your use of gasoline. This can begin when choosing a place to live. A home close to work will save time, money and gas in commuting. When buying a car, give thought to saving fuel. Don’t get the largest vehicle that you will ever need, but plan on the most practical one that will serve most of your needs. For those rare trips you can borrow or rent a larger vehicle. Look at the mileage figures and think of long-term savings.
You can minimize the amount that you need to drive. Plan errands with efficiency in mind. Drive to a central parking lot then walk to each store. Work at home when possible to save a lot of gas.
Biking and walking are the ideal. Remember, the bicycle is the most efficient way to transport a person—and always wear your helmet! Not only do walking and biking reduce fossil fuel use, they are also excellent exercise.
Public transportation is much more efficient than everyone driving in separate vehicles. Many cities have inexpensive conveyances that allow efficient use of time by reading or working while travelling. Carpooling is another way of increasing efficiency, both of your time and of the Earth’s resources.
When you do need to drive, there are actions you can take to reduce your fuel use. First of all, don’t warm up the engine. It doesn’t need to be warmed up, and doing so wastes gas and pollutes the air. When you stop for more than a minute, like at a drive-in window, turn off the engine. In the summer, use the air conditioner for higher-speed driving only. You can usually stay cool at lower speeds by opening the windows.
Driving smoothly really helps increase efficiency. Avoid rapid starts and sudden stops—both take a toll on your mileage. The less you need to use the brakes the more efficiently you are driving. It helps to anticipate traffic lights and stop signs so you can speed up and slow down more gradually to match traffic and signals.
At the pump select the lowest octane gas that is safe for your car. Higher than necessary octane won’t give you better performance. Be careful to not spill any gas. A gallon spilled leaks as much hydrocarbons into the atmosphere as driving 7500 miles.
Maintenance also affects your vehicle’s efficiency. Probably most important is to keep tires inflated properly. To get the most out of every gallon of gas be sure that the engine is properly tuned and has clean air and fuel filters. Finally, recycle all used oil, batteries and tires. Improper disposal hurts us all—did you know that the leading source of oil pollution of our waterways is used motor oil?
What does the future hold? Toyota and Honda already sell cars with wonderful mileage. The Prius and Insight both use light construction, smooth aerodynamic design and an innovative hybrid power train. A relatively small gas engine turns a generator. Electricity powers motors connected to the wheels. A small bank of batteries provides a power reservoir for bursts of speed. Much of the energy from braking can be stored in the batteries for later use. This hybrid technology and other improvements promise to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels.
It is hard to imagine life without our vehicles. We should use them carefully, however, remembering that they turn valuable resources into pollution. Driving more efficiently will allow more people to live on the planet with less impact.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2005