Gas prices are at an eight-year low, but American drivers have not lost their zeal for more fuel-efficient vehicles. According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, over half of all American drivers expect that their next car will have better fuel economy.
For more information on fuel economy, check out the DOE/EPA’s 2017 Fuel Economy Guide.
But for the average car buyer, deciding what kind of fuel-efficient car to purchase can feel like a tall order, especially if you are just now joining the green driving revolution. Here is everything you need to know about becoming a more fuel-efficient driver, including how to save money.
The History of Electrics and Hybrids
If you are not well-versed in car culture or green technology, you might not be fully aware of the differences between hybrid cars (e.g., the Toyota Prius) and fully electric cars (e.g., the Nissan Leaf).
The first electric vehicles were developed far earlier than most people realize: in the 1830s. In fact, electric vehicles were the most popular driving choice throughout the 19th century. But with Henry Ford’s implementation of assembly line manufacturing in the early 20th century, cars with internal combustion engines became less expensive to purchase than their electric counterparts, crowding the electric cars out of the market.
In the modern era, where there is a well-established infrastructure of both gas stations and interstate highways, manufacturers attempting to bring back the electric car to the average consumer have had to face one major obstacle: the distance an electric vehicle can drive on a single charge. Although the Tesla Model S 85D can go as far as 270 miles between charge-ups, the majority of electric vehicles have much smaller ranges—generally less than 100 miles.
That is one reason why auto manufacturers (led by Toyota in 1997, with the Prius) decided to create hybrid vehicles. A hybrid promises the best of both worlds, offering the fuel efficiency of an electric motor with the range of an internal combustion engine.
Understanding the Types of Hybrids
The original hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) uses its electric motor at low speeds, and shifts to its gasoline engine as the driver increases speed. HEVs do not need to be plugged in to recharge the electric motor, as it captures the excess energy used when braking and stores that energy in the battery. This system is known as regenerative braking. Ultimately, HEVs are gas-powered, but with an electric motor on board to make them more efficient.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) are quite different from HEVs, in that the electric motor is the main power source, rather than the gas engine. This is why PHEVs need to be plugged in to charge their batteries. PHEVs use the electric motor until the battery level falls to a predetermined low level of charge, at which point the gas engine kicks in to supply power to the electric motor.
In many of these vehicles, the gas engine works almost like a generator for the electric motor. Just as a backup generator at a hospital only kicks in when the electricity goes out, the gas engine in PHEVs is only used when the primary, electric engine has a low battery.
Both types of hybrids will cost you less at the gas pump, although according to the electric vehicle news site Inside EVs, the Toyota Prius HEV would have to drive 242 miles before it surpassed the Chevy Volt PHEV in fuel efficiency.
Electric Charging Stations
Both fully electric vehicles and PHEVs need to be plugged in at electric charging stations regularly, but finding an electric charging station can be more difficult than finding a gas station.
Fortunately, many drivers can charge their vehicles at home using either AC Level 1 or AC Level 2 charging equipment, both of which can be used to safely charge the car at home in the garage, or even outside in the rain with an outdoor outlet. AC Level 1 equipment will replenish 5 miles per hour of charge, whereas AC Level 2 will replenish 10 miles.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the cost to fully recharge an electric car or PHEV battery is similar to the cost of operating a central air conditioner for about six hours.
It’s also possible to recharge your electric or hybrid vehicle on the go. The website PlugShare provides users with maps of local electric charging stations, including public stations installed by businesses or the government, high power stations that offer fast charges or supercharges, and residential chargers shared by PlugShare members.
Uncle Sam Wants You…To Drive More Efficiently
The sticker price on many of the electric and hybrid vehicles may be shocking, but the IRS (as well as some state governments) offers tax benefits for car buyers who opt for an electric vehicle.
Specifically, the IRS provides a credit for qualified plug-in electric drive motor vehicles purchased after December 31, 2009. The basic credit is equal to $2,500. If your vehicle has a battery with a capacity of at least 5 kilowatt hours, your credit is worth an added $417. And, for every kilowatt hour above 5 kilowatt hours, it is worth an additional $417. All told, the credit could equal as much as $7,500.
Since this is a credit, your purchase of a qualifying electric vehicle will provide you with a dollar-for-dollar reduction of the amount of income tax you owe. For example, if you purchase a 2016 Tesla Model S, you will see your tax bill reduced by $7,500. If you owe less than $7,500 and qualify for this credit, then you will owe nothing—but note that you will not see a refund of the difference.
For example, a qualifying car with a 7 kilowatt hour battery capacity would be eligible for a $3,751 credit: $2,500 for the basic credit, plus $417 for a battery capacity of at least 5 kilowatt hours, plus $834 ($417 x 2 = $834) for the 2 kilowatt hours above the baseline battery capacity.
In order to qualify for this credit, you must purchase the car new—the credit is not available for used-car buyers or for leased cars. In addition, the credit phases out after the manufacturer has sold at least 200,000 qualifying vehicles in the United States.
Some states also offer incentives for purchasing fuel-efficient cars or installing charging stations.
Don’t Forget Other Efficient Options
The discussion about greening your commute is often so focused on newer technologies (or in the case of electric cars, old technology that is new again), that we can forget that there are other great options to consider:
Though diesel engines have long had a bad reputation—the older versions did produce a distressing amount of exhaust—modern diesel engines have lower carbon emissions than gasoline engines, and they are more fuel-efficient. You can get further on a tank of diesel than on a tank of gas, and though diesel prices fluctuate, it tends to cost about the same as gas. In addition, you can fuel up your diesel engine at most gas stations. Overall, they can be a good option for anyone who is wary of the limited range of electrics and PHEVs.
Even if you can’t afford to buy a new car, you can improve the efficiency of your current ride through hypermiling.
Hypermiling involves using various driving techniques to reduce fuel consumption. Such practices can range from the simple, (e.g., refraining from using the air conditioner) to the more complex (e.g., changing your driving behavior). For instance, hypermilers avoid aggressive driving, such as “hurry up and then wait” patterns when driving in a city and rapid speed changes when driving on a highway. Both behaviors use up a lot of fuel.
To save gas, aim to anticipate future stop signs or stoplights. Take your foot off the gas before having to hit the brake, which will allow you to coast, rather than screeching, to a stop. When you’re on the highway, try to maintain a single speed as driving conditions allow, as rapid accelerations will use up gas.
Hypermiling is ultimately about recognizing how your behavior affects your fuel economy and becoming a more mindful driver.
3. Take Care of Your Car
An engine that is in optimum condition will use fuel most efficiently. Therefore, to improve your fuel efficiency, adhere to a regular maintenance schedule, and also keep your tires properly inflated. Keeping your tires properly inflated and taking care of regular maintenance are important aspects of improving your fuel economy.
It’s also a good idea to keep your car clean, as heavy items in your trunk can reduce your miles per gallon Taking an afternoon to clean out your car can be a quick way to improve efficiency.
4. Drive Less
This may seem obvious, but driving less often is probably going to do more to reduce your oil consumption than buying a more fuel-efficient car ever could.
Driving less does not necessarily mean having to take the bus every day. Even a once-a-week carpool can make a big difference in the amount of fuel you consume. In addition, saving all of your errands for one day a week, and mapping out the most efficient route from your home to the dry cleaner to the library to the grocery store will save you money and time.
Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
Whether you are in the market for a new, high-tech vehicle, or you simply want to make visits to the pump less expensive while you nurse your car through its last few years, it is always possible to reduce your dependence on gasoline. Driving green is good for the environment, and it can make your wallet greener. It’s a win-win.
Whatever you’re driving, make sure you have the right car insurance.