Fighting fuel

The MPR newsroom has put together a comprehensive gas prices section. Midday is doing a show at 11 which, if it’s something more than playing the already-available MPR reporter pieces, I’ll live blog it in search of tips.

Of great interest — to me — is a series of online calculators that you can use to confirm — or overturn — the wisdom of your various ways to save money. For example, I found on a fill-up, I’m saving a total of 8 cents, by driving the extra distance to the gas station that sells gasoline at 4 cents a gallon less than the closer station. At that rate of savings, and at the current rate of gasoline inflation, I will “earn” a free gallon of gasoline… in August 2009.

The Star Tribune today, meanwhile, carried a troubling story about people basically resigning themselves to whatever the cost of gasoline is, without intending to change any habits to alleviate the pain. Our ancestors, who once did without nylon stockings and tin, and won a world war that way, are rolling over, no doubt.

MPR’s Marty Moylan has a terrific story today on how gas prices are spurring the sales of smaller cars… maybe.

He notes, however, that last year eight of the top 10 best-selling vehicles in Minnesota were trucks, vans, SUVs or mid-size sedans.

But hybrids are in and they’re always a good deal in times of rising gas prices, right? Not always, and certainly not right away.

Jesse Toprak, director or industry analysis for Edmunds.com, says buying new fuel-efficient cars doesn’t always save consumers money.

“You have to really look at the entire cost associated with the ownership of a new car and compare it, as best as you can, to the old car you have,” Jesse Toprak of Edmunds.com told Marty. “And if you get a new car with a new monthly payment and higher insurance at the end your net result may end up being negative.”

“Savings calculators” on some of the car company Web sites, not surprisingly, are notoriously misleading.

Take the Honda Civic Hybrid Web site, for example. If I were to trade in my 28 mpg car for a 45 mile per gallon hybrid, I would save $2,954.76 a year. Except, that I won’t.

First, the current car is paid for so one would have to take on the cost of a new car loan. Using the car calculator at Cars.com, figuring on a $24,000 for the new car, anticipating $1,000 trade-in, a four year loan, current interest rates, and the Minnesota sales tax, it would cost $5,180 just to finance the purchase. You can buy a lot of gas for $5,180 (Note: If you’re reading this a few years into the future, the price of gas was $4 a gallon when this was written, not the $5,180.9 a gallon it is now).

The first registration costs twice the amount of a renewal. That’s another $99. The monthly insurance is going to be much higher (especially since the Civic is one of the most-often-stolen cars) and pretty soon the period to recoup the investment through reduced fuel usage (and maybe a tax break) is fairly high. That doesn’t make it a bad idea, of course, it just makes it not as great an idea as we might’ve been led to believe.

Business Week’s blog had an item last week on the anticipated 2009 Prius hybrid models, and lamented the lack of a plug-in version. It also suggested the payback period for some hybrids can be as short as 18 months. (Unfortunately, some of the links in the post don’t work).

There’s another potential downside of the hybrid (or more accurately: of us). Given higher mileage: the driver is more likely to drive more often, negating the impact of the purchase, according to the Asbury Park Press.

And that brings us back, again, to the key to fighting the rising cost of energy: the willingness to focus on fighting it.

$20 Challenge update: I’ve been trying to limit my gas purchases to $20 a week, and adjust my driving to whatever the fuel gauge tells me. How am I doing? On the ride home last night, the “check gauges” light came on. I’ve got enough to get to work today, but perhaps I should bring a blanket and pillow…. or tin and nylons.

  • bsimon

    “On the ride home last night, the “check gauges” light came on. I’ve got enough to get to work today, but perhaps I should bring a blanket and pillow….”

    Pssstt!!

    Bring yer bike instead. At end of day, bike home, leaving car at the office. When you get your new $20, ride to work, pick up the car, fill ‘er up & wonder why you weren’t biking in the first place.

    (having said that, I drove every day this week…)

  • Bob Collins

    //Bring yer bike instead.

    That was my plan. Fridays were to be bike-to-work-and-smell-like-halibut day.

    But then I fell off a roof at my mother’s house while I was back east a few weeks ago and that was that.

  • Alison

    From a scientific standpoint, I really wonder about the drive slower to save gas idea. It started me thinking, how slow? Is there a point where going too slow starts a decrease in mpg? I would like to see someone investigate this. It also strikes me that a lot of factors could be involved. I suspect that engine size and gearing have a large effect on this, and it may be that there is an optimum speed for each vehicle to save fuel. Other factors influencing optimum speed to save fuel might include hills and wind speed/direction. Just a hypothesis, but it seems that the drive slow idea is a too simplistic. Has anyone seen a study on this?

    All that said, the hyper-milers on Morning Edition today were inspiring. Certainly their efforts on acceleration and deceleration should have an effect and they provide evidence for it.

  • I love the idea of biking to work but the actual practice of it seems pretty intimidating for a biking rookie. How do you know where you can bike and where you can’t? How do you figure out the best route to take? Am I gonna end up sweaty and stinky all day at work after biking the 8 miles in the morning? What happens if it rains? It’d be nice if there was a website out there that helped with planning bike routes for the twin cities and suburbs. 🙂 or even a good place to find out about the good and bad of biking to work?

  • Have you seen Metro Transit’s Bike2Benefits program? A little incentive.

    Since I live a whopping four miles away, I’ve decided to try the bike-to-work thing. To be eligible for B2B prizes, you have to make your commute by not driving alone at least one day a week for 8 consecutive weeks, sometime between now and the end of the year. There’s a calculator that shows you how much money you save and how much pollution you don’t put in the air by using alternative transportation methods.

  • bsimon

    Amy- there are extensive resources available. I understand the new bike shop on the greenway will have ‘new to commuting’ info and/or classes available. I can recommend an online resource at bikeforums.net – check out the commuting form there – they have heard all the questions before.

    For me, finding a route involved driving the backroads a few times & staring at google maps & the county bike route map. I found a great bike route & a better driving route (until Richfield tore out the 76th street bridge).

    Bob – what the heck did you fall off the roof for?!?

  • brian

    I’ve heard 55 is pretty optimum… but I can’t substantiate that. I’m sure the hyper-mileing websites could tell you.

  • Joel

    Amy,

    Bike trails are nice, but not a necessity for biking to work. Basically the only roads you can’t bike on are Highways and interstates. I live about 5 miles from work and when I bike I simply take residential roads to 494, get on Penn Ave. to cross 494 and then get back on residential roads the rest of the way to work. Some times I stay on Penn if traffic doesn’t feel too heavy.

    I would suggest taking your bike out some weekend and explore potential routes. Or you could always use google maps and plot a route before doing a test ride.

    As far as sweat, yes you will get sweaty, but if you have a shower at the office, problem solved. I don’t have a shower so one option is to towel off in the bathroom. I also leave a pair of pants and shoes at my office to change into and I bring in a clean shirt with me when I ride to also change in to.

    I’m sure there are other solutions, but that’s what I do when I ride to work.

  • Bob Collins

    //Bob – what the heck did you fall off the roof for?!?

    Was back east helping my elderly mother around the house and one of the chores was getting an old weathervane off the roof. I put a ladder up and climbed up but noticed the sneakers on the steep-pitch roof were not gripping. Rather than give up, stupidly, I made a mad dash to the peak, pulling myself up. I then removed the weathervane and threw it over the side.

    That’s when I realized I used the wrong ladder… the too-short one, so there was nothing to grab onto on the way back down.

    With only an 86 year old woman in the house, I reasoned that if I played it right, I’d slide down and go over the side of the roof where the ladder was, grab a rung and live to see another day.

    I went over the roof, but in the process, kicked the ladder backwards and fell straight down to a sidewalk,w hereupon the ladder hit me on the head.

    Not too bright.

    http://stirringsfromtheemptynest.blogspot.com/

    In answer to the previous question, 55 is correct. Keep in mind that at one point, the efficiency goes down because even though your MPG goes up, the time your engine stays ON also increases because it has to cover the same distance in more time.

  • Alison

    Bob – But you got the weathervane off the roof so it wasn’t in vain.

    I still wonder if 55 is correct for all cars. I had also heard (and I don’t know if it is true) that when 55 was the limit, cars were optimized to be fuel efficient at 55. But now that 55 isn’t the rule is that still true?

    Gary’s show was a good, comprehensive look at the issue. It still leaves me wondering when Metro Transit will come to the realization that there are plenty of people who neither live in nor work in either downtown.

  • bsimon

    Bob- nice story. I can see how that string of decisions could be made. Next time consider taking off your shoes once you reach the peak – bare feet can be higher traction than some rubber.

    Alison writes

    “I still wonder if 55 is correct for all cars.”

    As do I. It has a lot to do with gear ratios, coefficients of drag & motor design (i.e. where’s the sweet spot on the torque curve).

  • Bob Collins

    //Metro Transit will come to the realization that there are plenty of people who neither live in nor work in either downtown.

    AMEN!

    If you live in the ‘burbs — especially east of St. Paul, go to the Metro Transit “trip planner,” and see how often the response is “trip not possible.”

    Back in the early Pawlenty days, they cut bus routes in Woodbury, while at the same time, maintaining a one-every-hour bus to/from Stillwater.

    If there were a bus after 7:50 a.m., I’d be on it every day.

  • mulad

    Gasoline engines need to have air and fuel mixed at a precise ratio (14.7:1) in order to combust properly, so fuel consumption is strongly related to how many and how big the cylinders are, how fast they’re pumping air in and out, and how wide the throttle is (which affects the amount, but also the pressure of air coming in). So, you generally want the engine running at a low rpm while the car is moving as fast as possible.

    Anyway, the best fuel economy is typically between 1500 and 2000 rpm in the highest gear possible (5th or 6th). For most cars, that’s in the range of 45-60 mph. Since most people cruise around 60-75, there are some folks who have swapped out the top gear cog in their transmission to lower the engine rpm by a few hundred at those speeds. Most hybrid vehicles also have a “taller” top gear like that, since the hybrid systems usually only give electric assist up to about 45 mph and don’t help much on the highway (though most hybrids also have small-displacement engines which also helps fuel economy).

    Of course, lots of late-model American cars with automatic transmissions only have four gears. GM and Ford are finally fixing this in newer models, but they could have done it five or ten years ago. Anyway, a car with just four or three gears typically has to run the engine at an even higher rpm to cruise on the highway.

    I’ll be happy when electric cars come around and get rid of this weird backward relationship between speed and fuel consumption.

  • c

    about 15 years ago i worked in the warehouse district and in downtown minneapolis. i was temporarily living by sun ray shoppeing center. i biked third street to maria to seventh over to university and i rode pretty much university from the st paul capitol over to minneapolis and then shot over on washington. i packed a washcloth, soap, deoderant and bendable (clothing that didn’t wrinkle easily) clothing that would fit in a back pack.

    I washed up in the public bathroom.

    to those of you who are concerned about where you can’t bike-well like the other poster said not on the freeway otherwise you can bike pretty much anywhere that you are comfortable in combatting traffic.

  • Bob Collins

    Nikki Tundel’s piece on this subject was OUTSTANDING!

    “First of all, you need to develop very, very thick skin.Because you get people who are just like, ‘I don’t care if there’s a bike there. I’m gonna run it over.’ And they are going to pass you and almost hit you. That’s just how it is.”

  • Chuck

    I know someone that just bought a “SMART” car (those things that look like golf cars) and she gets 300 miles on a 25.00 fill up. Not bad.