The mass of a car and its mpg.

Back when I was an assistant professor at Michigan State University, MSU, they had a mileage olympics between the various engineering schools. Michigan State’s car got over 800 mpg, and lost soundly. By contrast, my current car, a Saab 9,2 gets about 30 miles per gallon on the highway, about average for US cars, and 22 to 23 mpg in the city in the summer. That’s about 1/40th the gas mileage of the Michigan State car, or about 2/3 the mileage of the 1978 VW rabbit I drove as a young professor, or the same as a Model A Ford. Why so low? My basic answer: the current car weighs a lot more.

As a first step to analyzing the energy drain of my car, or MSU’s, the energy content of gasoline is about 123 MJ/gallon. Thus, if my engine was 27% efficient (reasonably likely) and I got 22.5 mpg (36 km/gallon) driving around town, that would mean I was using about .922 MJ/km of gasoline energy. Now all I need to know is where is this energy going (the MSU car got double this efficiency, but went 40 times further).

The first energy sink I considered was rolling drag. To measure this without the fancy equipment we had at MSU, I put my car in neutral on a flat surface at 22 mph and measured how long it took for the speed to drop to 19.5 mph. From this time, 14.5 sec, and the speed drop, I calculated that the car had a rolling drag of 1.4% of its weight (if you had college physics you should be able to repeat this calculation). Since I and the car weigh about 1700 kg, or 3790 lb, the drag is 53 lb or 233 Nt (the MSU car had far less, perhaps 8 lb). For any friction, the loss per km is F•x, or 233 kJ/km for my vehicle in the summer, independent of speed. This is significant, but clearly there are other energy sinks involved. In winter, the rolling drag is about 50% higher: the effect of gooey grease, I guess.

The next energy sink is air resistance. This is calculated by multiplying the frontal area of the car by the density of air, times 1/2 the speed squared (the kinetic energy imparted to the air). There is also a form factor, measured on a wind tunnel. For my car this factor was 0.28, similar to the MSU car. That is, for both cars, the equivalent of only 28% of the air in front of the car is accelerated to the car’s speed. Based on this and the density of air in the summer, I calculate that, at 20 mph, air drag was about 5.3 lbs for my car. At 40 mph it’s 21 lbs (95 Nt), and it’s 65 lbs (295 Nt) at 70 mph. Given that my city driving is mostly at <40 mph, I expect that only 95 kJ/km is used to fight air friction in the city. That is, less than 10% of my gas energy in the city or about 30% on the highway. (The MSU car had less because of a smaller front area, and because it drove at about 25 mph)

The next energy sink was the energy used to speed up from a stop — or, if you like, the energy lost to the brakes when I slow down. This energy is proportional to the mass of the car, and to velocity squared or kinetic energy. It’s also inversely proportional to the distance between stops. For a 1700 kg car+ driver who travels at 38 mph on city streets (17 m/s) and stops, or slows every 500m, I calculate that the start-stop energy per km is 2 (1/2 m v2 ) = 1700•(17)2  = 491 kJ/km. This is more than the other two losses combined and would seem to explain the majority cause of my low gas mileage in the city.

The sum of the above losses is 0.819 MJ/km, and I’m willing to accept that the rest of the energy loss (100 kJ/km or so) is due to engine idling (the efficiency is zero then); to air conditioning and headlights; and to times when I have a passenger or lots of stuff in the car. It all adds up. When I go for long drives on the highway, this start-stop loss is no longer relevant. Though the air drag is greater, the net result is a mileage improvement. Brief rides on the highway, by contrast, hardly help my mileage. Though I slow down less often, maybe every 2 km, I go faster, so the energy loss per km is the same.

I find that the two major drags on my gas mileage are proportional to the weight of the car, and that is currently half-again the weight of my VW rabbit (only 1900 lbs, 900 kg). The MSU car was far lighter still, about 200 lbs with the driver, and it never stopped till the gas ran out. My suggestion, if you want the best gas milage, buy one light cars on the road. The Mitsubishi Mirage, for example, weighs 1000 kg, gets 35 mpg in the city.

A very aerodynamic, very big car. It's beautiful art, but likely gets lousy mileage -- especially in the city.

A very aerodynamic, very big car. It’s beautiful art, but likely gets lousy mileage — especially in the city.

Short of buying a lighter car, you have few good options to improve gas mileage. One thought is to use better grease or oil; synthetic oil, like Mobil 1 helps, I’m told (I’ve not checked it). Alternately, some months ago, I tried adding hydrogen and water to the engine. This helps too (5% -10%), likely by improving ignition and reducing idling vacuum loss. Another option is fancy valving, as on the Fiat 500. If you’re willing to buy a new car, and not just a new engine, a good option is a hybrid or battery car with regenerative breaking to recover the energy normally lost to the breaks. Alternately, a car powered with hydrogen fuel cells, — an option with advantages over batteries, or with a gasoline-powered fuel cell

Robert E. Buxbaum; July 29, 2015 I make hydrogen generators and purifiers. Here’s a link to my company site. Here’s something I wrote about Peter Cooper, an industrialist who made the first practical steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb: the key innovation here: making it lighter by using a forced air, fire-tube boiler.