Pump up your tires to save Alaska

May 8, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

“HOW ALASKA CAN HELP MEET AMERICA’S ENERGY NEEDS” is an article to which Republican Senator Jim Talent of Missouri refers his constituents.  That article argues that we need to start drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) of Alaska, because it holds 10 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil, “enough to produce about 1 million barrels a day for 30 years.” 

Our politicians tell us a lot about looking for oil (and fighting for oil) these days, but nothing practical about conserving oil.  This puzzles me.  Reducing demand for oil has the same end effect as producing new oil.  And as time goes on, it’s clear that saving a barrell of oil will get easier and easier than finding a new barrell of oil.

The failure of our elected representatives to advocate conservation also puzzles me because bridging the gap between oil supply and demand is a huge national security issue.  Why not fight this huge problem in two ways, producing more and using less?

But can you save oil by doing LITTLE things?  You bet.  Lots of oil.

For example, consider the informal study done by students at Carnegie Mellon who measured the air pressure in the tires of 81 cars at a student parking lot.  This study assumed that the optimum air pressure for fuel efficiency was the maximum air pressure stated on the tires’ sidewall.  The students found that the four tires of each car were under-inflated by an average of 20%. Only one of the 81 vehicles had the proper air pressure.

The EPA indicates that each 2 PSI under-inflation causes 1% loss in fuel efficiency. Consider, also, that the Department of Energy reports that vehicles average 22.3 miles per gallon and 12,242 miles per year.  The Carnegie Mellon students found that the average vehicle they inspected burned 144 extra gallons of gas due to under-inflated tires. At $3 per gallon, this amounts to $432 for gas each year for each vehicle.

To extrapolate nationwide, consider that, in 2004, there were 136 million licensed cars and 91 million licensed small trucks in the U.S., totaling 227 million motor vehicles (this excludes large trucks and motorcycles).   If each American vehicle has tires that are under-inflated comparably to those in the Carnegie Mellon study, U.S. drivers are wasting 32,688,000,000 gallons of gas each year.  There are 42 gallons in each barrel of oil.

Therefore, under-inflated tires waste 778,285,714 barrels of oil per year.  This equates to 2,132,289 barrels per day, which is twice the amount of oil Senator Jim Talent hopes to produce each day by drilling holes in the Alaskan wilderness. You would think, then, that politicians like Talent would spend twice as much time reminding their constituents to keep their tire pressure to spec than advocating drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness. Very few politicians advocate conservation, though. 

American drivers desperately need this information, however. According to 2002 research by the Rubber Manufacturers Association, nearly 90 percent of drivers surveyed do not check their tire pressure properly. Many do not know enough about how to care for their tires correctly.  The survey also found that 66 percent of drivers don’t even know where to find the recommended proper tire inflation pressure for their vehicles’ tires.  Note: You can find the recommended level in your owner’s manual or on a doorjamb tag. 

It’s not that Americans don’t “care” about their cars.  Each month, three out of four drivers wash their car while only about one in five correctly checks their tire pressure

For further corroboration of these statistics, see Goodyear’s site, which indicates that running a tire 20% under-inflated – only 5 to 7 pounds per square inch (PSI) – can increase fuel consumption by 10 percent. That easily may cost motorists two or three miles per gallon. In addition, the tire’s tread life can be reduced by 15 percent or more, due to premature or irregular wear caused by incorrect inflation levels.

Why, then, don’t our leaders take the bully pulpit to tell the people to conserve? Because conserving is not cool (or even macho) as is conspicuous consumption.  Pumping up your tires doesn’t impress neighbors or members of the opposite sex.  Not like washing your car or putting the peddle down in your Excursion and roaring down a city street. 

Maybe it’s time to rethink our conventional wisdom. Maybe it’s time to run a national campaign disparaging wasting of oil. But how can we possibly do that when it’s so ingrained in our national psyche to waste oil?  Look at Talent’s “solutions” to the energy problem: conservation isn’t even mentioned.

Consider Geoffrey Miller’s conclusions in The Mating Mind, in which he discusses the implications of Darwin’s (lesser known) theory of selection: sexual selection.  Conspicuous consumption is often sexy, as noted by Miller (and Darwin). Public wasting of resources is deeply ingrained in us and it sends a strong signal that we are of high status. Perhaps by recognizing aspect of humans we can curb our wasteful and dangerous instincts. I would suggest that we should teach more Darwin in public schools (not less) in order to help us better understand why we tend to be wasteful.  Then, maybe we could better develop real solutions to the growing energy crisis, including solutions based on conservation.  National security depends on it.

Note:  This post dares to suggest that Darwin produced more than a mere “theory.”  Without Darwin, this refusal of Americans to buy into conservation is as puzzling as it is self-destructive. Darwin’s “theory” thus has pragmatic application here: Sexual selection relates to national security via patterns of oil usage.

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Category: Economy, Energy, Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Edgar Montrose says:

    While I agree with your sentiments, the studies that you reference are suspect. Assuming that the maximum pressure stated on the tire sidewall is the optimum value is like assuming that the top speed of your automobile is the optimum value. The optimum inflation pressure is a complex function of load, surface, speed, and other factors. In general rolling resistance is reduced as inflation pressure is increased, but there is a point of diminishing returns. See http://gaia.csus.edu/~grandajj/me143/ME143_Tires_… ; particularly slides 9 and 10. This study showed that above about 25-30 psi the reduction of rolling resistance on hard surfaces was negligible. Furthermore, overinflation leads to decreased tire life (replacing tires carries an energy cost, too), and reduced traction and degraded control (replacing cars involved in crashes is especially wasteful of energy).

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    EIA estimates that about 10.4 billion barrels of oil can be recovered from ANWR, just over a year of American consumption. Saudi Arabia alone has about 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.

    Here's the story.

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