Dear Dot: Can I Make My Car More Eco-Friendly?



Dear Dot,

I can’t afford a new electric vehicle. Is there a way to make my internal combustion engine more energy-efficient? Does it matter what grade fuel I use?


Dear Poppy,

For too long, the notion of being environmentally responsible has been tangled up with the purchase of new eco-friendly things. Electric vehicles, for instance. But using what we have as responsibly as we can is often more virtuous, so your question is a good one. 

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I took your query to Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity. Becker worked hard to get achievable fuel-efficiency standards passed in 2012 by the Obama administration, only to watch them be gutted in 2017 under Trump. But Becker is a man who does not accept defeat, nor should we. At the top of Becker’s list of how to reduce our fuel emissions is a simple one: Drive less. “Every gallon burned emits 25 pounds of carbon dioxide, whether in a Hummer or a hybrid,” he says, which is why efficiency and electric vehicles are so important. Don’t buy premium gas unless your car requires it, he says, as “higher levels of ethanol — E-10 is currently standard — will only reduce mpg.” If premium gas is simply recommended rather than required, you can get the same performance from regular fuel. It also doesn’t matter which brand of gasoline you buy. Becker has personally boycotted Exxon since the Valdez spill in 1989, 32 years ago, a level of conviction I tip my hat to. My grudges are measured in the lifespan of a fruitfly. 

Save your money and don’t bother with fuel additives, Becker adds. Their claims are meaningless. 

Perhaps most important (besides driving less), says Becker: “Urge President Biden to set the strongest clean car standards to force automakers to use the best technology.” The folks at Moms Clean Air Force have already written a letter that you can download, personalize if you’d like, and send. You can also contact Gov. Charlie Baker toll-free at 888-870-7770, or reach him on Twitter — his handle is @MassGovernor — and tell him you support clean car standards for automakers and would very much like him to help make them happen. 

In the meantime, oil your bike, or get a good pair of sneakers, and as often as you can, leave your car in the driveway. Not only will that improve air quality and your own health, your bank account will breathe easier too. 

If you do find yourself in the market for a new vehicle, you’re smart to buy electric, and not just because it’s better for the planet. A hot-off-the-press study by the federal Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy reveals that there’s a whopping 40 percent less expense associated with an electric vehicle over a conventional internal combustion engine. And that’s not even including the reduced expense from using less fuel. The reason is that while an internal combustion engine has roughly 10,000 parts involved in making it move, an electric vehicle has less than 10, say the clever folks at CleanTechnica, which means there are a lot fewer parts requiring service or replacement. And don't feel you have to purchase an off-the-lot vehicle. A used electric is a great option. 

What else can you do? 

• Keep your tires properly inflated, which lowers rolling resistance. 

• Lump errands together so that it takes just one car trip to satisfy your to-do list. 

• Stick to the speed limit, and ease up on the accelerator and brake for a smoother, more fuel-efficient ride.

• If your roof-top box is empty, remove it. 



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