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At $117 a Barrel, Why Don't We Slow Down?

Just today I saw in a major daily newspaper an ad for a new (expensive) synthetic oil that Exxon-Mobil claims will reduce engine friction enough to reduce fuel consumption about 1.5%. They point out that this would reduce CO2 emissions by millions of tons and have the equivalent impact of removing 1.5 million cars from the road.

Commendable, for sure. Every bit helps.

But it brought to mind an idea arising from an incident that happened yesterday.

I drove a few miles on our local Interstate Highway, where the speed limit is 65 mph. I was in the right lane, not in a great hurry, driving 65 which increasingly, at least for me, is fast enough. It was unsettling to find that the rest of the cars and trucks were passing in the middle and left lanes at fully 80 or 85 mph, all with virtual impunity. I was almost a hazard to them and to myself by going "only" the speed limit.

As an aeronautical engineer, I understand that aerodynamic drag on a rolling vehicle, not needing to generate lift like an airplane, increases as the square of the ratio of forward speed. So, going 85 versus 65 produces 71% more so-called form and skin friction drag. That means that the power required to push the car along, when more or less constant rolling friction is taken into account, is about 50% more, and of course fuel consumption varies roughly in proportion to power generated, as efficiency stays about the same.

That got me thinking about things that we can do in America to show our willingness and ability to reduce CO2 emission with something we can do today.

We all applaud the progress in solar energy, geothermal power, wind generators, fuel cells, efficient buildings, new PHEV cars, lighter airplanes and so on. But most, if not all, of these offer improvements in the fairly distant future.

Staring us in the face is an opportunity to reduce fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions almost immediately. We have even done it before (which could be a problem) so we know what to expect.

Obviously, I am talking about reducing and/or enforcing speed limits. It would take significant effort and severe penalties for violations. I envision Federal mandates, for example, and ca. $250 fines for exceeding the limit by more than 10 mph.

Do the math.

After coal for making electricity (which is really not an "energy service" like light, heat or motive power, but is instead a delivery system, like a gasoline tanker truck), transportation, including cars, buses and trucks, is the second largest emitter of CO2. If we merely obeyed the speed limits we could save at least 20% of the fuel we burn in cars and trucks. If we lowered maximum limits to 55, and obeyed them, the results would be even more impressive. In addition:

  • • We would save more lives and serious injuries per year than all those suffered in the last five years by our troopers in Iraq.
  • • We would almost certainly reduce the cost of petroleum because the drop in demand would be felt worldwide.
  • • The impact could be almost immediate, in contrast to so many other programs.
  • • We would set an example that the USA is finally getting serious about energy efficiency and fossil fuel emissions.
  • • We would restore a sense that laws are on the books to be enforced, not ignored.
  • • We would generate significant penalty revenues from those who continue to speed, despite the new rules.
  • • Computing an auto's speed by its elapsed time between stations, electronic toll readers could impose fines scaled by excess speed, vastly increasing those penalty revenues beyond what highway police can reel in.
  • • The effect of such a program could be ten or even twenty times as important as the Exxon-Mobil synthetic oil.

But almost nobody is talking about it, much less promoting it.

We wonder whether some such program might be a good plank for one of the Presidential contenders. Let us hear whether you agree, and give us some ideas for how to add this to the "national conversation".

- Douglas Ayer, PlanetWatch Editor,